Representative Chris Smith [R-NJ] says he is hopeful that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will investigate the University of Pittsburgh’s fetal tissue research.

Smith and 88 other members of Congress sent a letter May 24 to the department’s inspector general that raised concerns about possible federal law violations. 

“We request that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) conduct an audit to determine whether fetal tissue research funded by HHS at the University of Pittsburgh violated federal law,” the letter says.

After receiving the letter, signed only by Republicans, HHS Inspector General Christi Grimm responded, saying that her office will “follow up accordingly.”

“I’m hopeful that there will be an investigation,” Smith told CNA on Wednesday, adding that the university's self-investigation was insufficient, given the severity of the accusations brought against it.

Those accusations include claims from doctors that the university must be harvesting organs from babies born alive in failed abortion attempts, given the language it uses to describe its research practices in federal grant documents from the HHS. After those and other accusations in late 2021, the university hired an outside firm to investigate it, which concluded “that the University is fully compliant with federal and state regulatory requirements.”

Smith told CNA that the university’s investigation of itself was a “complete whitewash.” 

The congressional letter to the Inspector General’s Office says that “The firm’s report itself failed to address the two main questions about whether the University of Pittsburgh and its recipients and subrecipients of HHS funding have violated the law because it stopped short of investigating the University of Pittsburgh’s sources for fetal tissue.”

The legislators seek to know whether the University of Pittsburgh violated federal law prohibiting the alteration of abortion procedures solely for the purpose of obtaining fetal tissue, and whether the tissue being used for research has been derived from aborted babies who were born alive and then killed by organ or tissue harvesting.

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They are also concerned that the university does not have formal documentation of its research.

The university’s investigation firm noted in its report that “The University does not have a formal procedure that comprehensively documents” the fetal tissue research.

Smith, who was interviewed on EWTN News Nightly Tuesday, told correspondent Erik Rosales that the university’s research is “barbaric,” while calling on the Biden administration to enforce federal law if it was broken.

Senator James Lankford [R-OK] told Rosales that “no one gets to investigate themselves,” adding, “we need to have an outside investigation as well because we need to know if they’re using fetal tissue and adjusting the way abortions are actually occuring in clear violation of federal law.”

“We are cognizant that the HHS OIG has a reputation for performing thorough, non-partisan audits in pursuit of its mission to promote the economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and integrity of HHS programs,” the letter says. “We thus await your unbiased evaluation of the serious concerns we have raised, which may either obviate or confirm the need for additional congressional oversight.”

The university’s fetal tissue research is occurring through a program called the GenitoUrinary Developmental Molecular Anatomy Project. The project’s research focuses on kidney and genitourinary tract development. According to the documents from the HHS, the project had received federal funding starting in 2016.

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Those documents say the university is using fetal tissue provided by its partner organizations from aborted babies between six and 42 weeks gestation. 

Much of the criticism of the university centers on its wording in the HHS documents that says, “we record the warm ischemic time on our samples and take steps to keep it at a minimum to ensure the highest quality biological specimens.”

The document says, “We get feedback from our users and utilize this feedback to tailor our collection processes on a case-by-case basis to maximize the needs of investigators.”

Some doctors have interpreted this to mean that babies are likely having their organs harvested while alive.

Smith told CNA that he recently chaired a congressional hearing which outlined the Chinese Communist Party’s killing Uyghurs to harvest their organs. 

He said that “there is no difference” between the organ harvesting from Uyghurs in China and the unborn babies being used for research by the University of Pittsburgh.

The university has been researching using fetal tissue since 2001, according to the report from the university’s hired firm.