The Trump administration is halting fetal tissue research by government scientists and placing new restrictions on how the National Institutes of Health issues grants to academic researchers. The move is meant to appease the president’s anti-choice political base, but the measures are a serious blow to medical science.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it’s putting a stop to fetal-tissue research by government scientists, and placing new restrictions on academic researchers seeking grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on any studies involving the use of fetal tissue, as Nature reports. The federal government said it’s also canceling a contract with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) involving research with fetal tissue.
The sticking point for the president has to do with the fact that fetal tissue is collected from abortions. In a statement issued yesterday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said, “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.”
Accordingly, Trump’s negative stance on abortion rights has led his administration to place a ban a seemingly related practice, namely medical research involving fetal tissue. But these moves are not without consequences, as the ban and the funding restrictions will curtail a critically important avenue of research. Fetal tissue, with its unique biological properties, offers important insights into vaccines, human growth and development, regenerative medicine, eye disorders, and many other lines of research.
David Magnus, a professor at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, said this is a major shift away from policy that had been adopted by previous Republican and Democratic administrations. He’s now worried that new measures will result in the loss of several important avenues of research, including studies on HIV, neurological disease, and vaccine development.
“The reason why it is misguided—and why past anti-abortion presidents have supported this research—is that it conflates the cause of the creation of the fetal tissue with later use,” Magnus wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “I assume we are all opposed to people driving while drunk, shooting other people, or drowning. But if those tragedies happen, we often try to find ways to get at least something good out of it through organ donation and sometimes through doing research on the bodies,” said Magnus.
By procuring fetal tissue and conducting research in this area, scientists are in “no way” taking “a stand on the morality of the actions that gave rise to the availability of the body or tissues,” he said. What’s more, Magnus said existing rules in fetal tissue research actually prohibits research from influencing any decisions that were made, or actions taken, that produced the fetal tissue.
“So there is no good reason—even for someone opposed to abortion—to oppose this research,” he told Gizmodo.
This move by the Trump administration is the latest in a string of efforts to appease the president’s anti-abortion, religiously conservative base. In other recent and related moves, Trump is preventing family planning and reproductive health clinics, like Planned Parenthood, that receive federal funding from providing or making referrals for abortions. The president has set up rules to protect healthcare practitioners who object to performing abortions for religious or moral reasons. The measures announced yesterday are also in accordance with recent efforts from anti-abortion groups to limit research with fetal tissue.
Trump’s new policy orders federal scientists to stop doing research with fetal tissue once their current supplies run out. As the New York Times reported, roughly 200 academic fetal tissue research projects funded by the NIH will be permitted to continue, but only until their funding expires. For new research projects to get NIH funding and those up for renewal, “an ethics advisory board will be convened to review the research proposal and recommend whether, in light of the ethical considerations, NIH should fund the research project—pursuant to a law passed by Congress,” according to the HHS statement.
The HHS said it’s exploring “adequate alternatives” to the use of human fetal tissue derived from elective abortions. Last year, the NIH granted $20 million in funding “to develop, demonstrate, and validate experimental models that do not rely on human fetal tissue from elective abortions,” noted the HHS.
Bioethicist R. Alta Charo from the University of Wisconsin–Madison said the new measures are significant for two reasons.
“First, it is a clear indication that this administration values symbolic statements over research aimed at saving lives,” she wrote to Gizmodo in an email. “Second, it is yet another example of this administration’s determination to ignore evidence when setting policy. There is no evidence that the use of donated tissue from fetal remains has any effect on whether women choose abortions, and no evidence that decades of research using donated tissue has ever led to an increase in the number of abortions.”
At the same, Charo said there’s plenty of evidence pointing to the value of fetal tissue in the development of vaccines and interventions to thwart HIV.
“Indeed, in one of the greatest ironies, this tissue might be used for research on the Zika virus that can cause devastating birth defects, so a policy aimed at symbolically valuing fetal life may end up devaluing the lives of actual children.”
To which she added: “Good policy begins with good facts. This policy ignores and defies the facts.”