Government clampdown on fetal tissue research
Scientists reacted with dismay last week after the Trump administration sharply restricted federal funding for medical research that uses fetal tissue, potentially affecting some $100 million in grants. Collected from elective abortions, the tissue has been used to develop vaccines for illnesses including polio, rubella, and measles, and is currently being used to study diseases including cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The new restrictions will result in three research projects at the National Institutes of Health being shuttered. About 200 outside research projects that use the material and receive NIH funding will be allowed to continue until their grants expire. Future research projects will then have to be approved by an ethics advisory board appointed by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. The White House said the research clampdown would “protect the dignity of human life.”
The change is a victory for anti-abortion groups. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said it was “disgusting” that taxpayers had helped fund “experimentation using baby body parts.” But scientists said the restrictions would severely hamper their research. Stem cells harvested from fetal tissue can transform into any cell, replicate quickly, and don’t trigger the same immune response as adult cells, which means they can be injected into lab mice to study human diseases. “The ban on fetal tissue research,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, is “a ban on hope for millions of Americans suffering from life-threatening and debilitating diseases.”
What the columnists said
“This is nothing more than a sop to the religious right,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. Clamping down on scientists’ use of fetal tissue won’t save any babies—because abortion will continue—but it will chill research that could help babies, children, and adults avoid suffering and death. You can’t claim to be pro-life if you’re denying science “the best tools available to find cures and create medicine for sick people.”
Those tools are “the body parts of aborted babies,” said Mary Vought in WashingtonExaminer.com, and scientists have alternatives. Only three of the 75 vaccines available in the U.S. “still utilize legacy fetal cell lines.” And pluripotent stem cells—derived from adult tissue and being used now in Parkinson’s research in Japan—could replace fetal stem cells in some studies. But researchers in the U.S. have largely ignored these alternatives because the government has paid them to focus on fetal remains.
For my work as a virologist, there is no viable alternative to fetal tissue, said Carolyn Coyne in The Washington Post. I study how viruses such as Zika can penetrate the placenta, which both protects and nourishes the fetus. Since most viruses that can cause severe birth defects and fetal death do so in the first and second trimesters, it’s critical to study healthy placentas from early in pregnancy, “which are usually collected following an abortion.” Given that the placenta counts as fetal tissue, this lifesaving research “could now be banned or limited by the Trump administration.”