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Editorial: How the Trump administration is undermining science by pandering to abortion opponents

A tray of stem cells at the University of Connecticut's  Stem Cell Institute
A tray of stem cells at the University of Connecticut’s Stem Cell Institute in 2010.
(Spencer Platt / TNS)

The use of fetal tissue has long been invaluable in scientific research on numerous fronts. Significant work on Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, kidney failure and Parkinson’s disease has all been aided by the use of fetal tissue. Cells from fetuses have been used to develop vaccines for rubella, rabies and other serious diseases.

Yet it has been controversial because the primary source of the tissue has been elective abortions. That’s why abortion opponents have fought to stop its use in research, and anti-abortion members of Congress have investigated (harassed, really) the biomedical companies that supply it.

Pandering to the abortion opponents who support the president, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to cripple research that utilizes fetal tissue. Last year, it forbade scientists at the National Institutes of Health from obtaining any more fetal tissue for further research. The federal government also stopped funding an annual contract between NIH and UC-San Francisco that involved fetal tissue research. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the decision was a result of a new process prompted by a review of all the research projects it funded to ensure “adequacy of procedures and oversight” of fetal tissue research “in light of serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations.”

This year, HHS set up the Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board to review proposals from outside research institutions that require fetal tissue. In its first report, released this week, the board rejected all but one of the 14 research projects brought before it. In many cases, the board decided that the researchers were using too much tissue or hadn’t proven why they couldn’t do the research without using it. The only project that did clear this panel was one that would establish a research method that replaces the use of fetal tissue. (Those researchers pledged to use tissue they already had in storage.)

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The advisory board includes medical doctors, science professors, a professor of moral philosophy and a doctor who co-chairs the Catholic Medical Assn. Ethics Committee. The chairwoman is Paige Comstock Cunningham, a past president of the prominent anti-abortion group Americans United for Life.

If there were any doubts that most of this group was opposed to fetal tissue research from the get-go, then the strongly worded dissent from two unnamed members of the group should dispel them. They wrote: “This board was clearly constituted … so as to include a large majority of members who are on the public record as being opposed to human fetal tissue research of any type. This was clearly an attempt to block funding of as many contracts and grants as possible,” even those responding to an NIH solicitation for research on improving humanized immune systems in mice that would require comparing mice grown with human fetal tissue and those that were not. That work is needed for the development of therapies for COVID-19, among other illnesses.

It is outrageous that the Trump administration would cloak — and not very well — an effort to deny funding to legitimate scientific research projects that require fetal tissue as an exercise in ethics. It’s the exact opposite. Denying federal funding to much-needed research projects on the basis of an ethics panel micromanaging how scientists use tissue in research is not just unethical, it’s irresponsible. While the administration hasn’t banned fetal tissue research by private institutions, it has cut off a vital supply of funding to that research.

There is nothing dangerous or risky about using fetal tissue — this is not like testing unproven therapies on human subjects. Nor is it unethical. Abortion is legal in this country, and the donation of tissue from it to medical research is also legal. (Fees may be charged for services, but tissue cannot be sold.)

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The Trump administration is notoriously hostile to science as well as to the constitutionally protected right to abortion. Those two destructive biases come together in the government’s blatant and reckless attempts to undermine the legitimate use of fetal tissue.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has the power to overturn these recommendations. He should do that and let the grants be judged by scientific experts, not conservative moralists.


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