The Trump administration this week made good on its threats to clamp down on the use of tissue derived from aborted fetuses in federally funded medical research, cancelling a $2-million-a year contract with the University of California San Francisco for HIV research. The government said it will reject future projects that seek federal funding through the National Institutes for Health.
This is nothing more than an anti-scientific sop to the religious right, which sees fetal tissue research as another front in the war on abortion. But barring fetal tissue research will hurt more babies than it will save. In fact, it won’t save any babies at all, because abortion is a constitutionally protected right that will continue regardless of these rules.
What such a policy will do is chill important research that could help babies — and children and adults — avoid suffering and death. Fetal tissue research has helped scientists understand debilitating and deadly maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and and Parkinson’s disease so treatments can be developed. Cells cultured from aborted fetuses were used to develop vaccines for rubella, rabies and other serious diseases. At the moment researchers are using fetal tissue find a vaccine for the Zika virus, which has devastating effects on babies born to women who contract it while pregnant.
Those opposed to fetal tissue research for moral reasons argue that the potential life packed into every fetus, no matter how undeveloped, is sacred and deserves the same protection as a newborn baby. They also say that there are reasonable alternatives to fetal research, such as using cells from human bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. But that view is not shared by all researchers, and it seems a greater moral transgression to deny science the best tools available to find cures and create medicine for sick people.
President Trump is not the first Republican president to put restrictions on federal funding for fetal tissue research. In 2001, President Bush imposed a ban on federal funding for research on newly created human embryonic stem cell lines. That ban did not entirely stop research and important scientific advances, but it did hamper them. (President Obama loosened some, but not all, of the restrictions.)
Trump’s ban is at direct odds with the goal he announced just a few months ago: to end AIDS in America. “Scientific breakthroughs have brought a once-distant dream within reach,” he said during his State of the Union speech in February. But future breakthroughs may be impossible without the help of fetal tissue research.