The Trump administration said it is ending medical research by government scientists using human fetal tissue, a victory for abortion foes that comes despite impassioned pleas from scientists that some health problems can’t be studied any other way.
Research using fetal tissue that otherwise would be discarded has been funded by the government, under leadership of both political parties, for decades — and has led to life-saving advances including development of vaccines for rubella and rabies, and drugs for the HIV virus.
Officials said government-sponsored research by universities will be allowed to continue, subject to additional scrutiny.
But ongoing research at the National Institutes of Health involving fetal tissue from elective abortion would not be allowed to proceed.
The policy change won’t affect privately funded research that uses human fetal tissue.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
But ending its use is a priority for anti-abortion activists, a core element of President Donald Trump’s political base. Trump casts himself as “strongly pro-life,” and his administration has taken many steps to restrict access to abortion, which remains a legal medical procedure. Trump has nominated federal judges who oppose abortion, attempted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, and expanded legal protection for medical providers who object to abortion.
Opponents argue that the work is not necessary because other model systems and techniques can be used. “This is antiquated science,” says David Prentice, the vice-president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, which is an anti-abortion organization in Washington DC. “There are better and, frankly, more successful alternatives.”
But supporters of the research counter that fetal tissue is legally obtained, that it would otherwise be destroyed, that such work has already led to major medical advances and that, if there were better alternatives, they would turn to them. “Fetal tissue is a flexible, less-differentiated tissue. It grows readily and adapts to new environments, allowing researchers to study basic biology or use it as a tool in a way that can’t be replicated with adult tissue,” says Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH’s associate director for science policy.
“I get very frustrated when misinformed people go on about how it can all be done with computer models or cell cultures or stem cells or animals,” says Paul Fowler, a reproductive biologist at the University of Aberdeen Institute of Medical Sciences, UK, who published a study using fetal tissue to probe the impacts of maternal smoking on liver development.
Some argue that the entire issue represents a thinly cloaked attempt to attack and limit access to abortion by eroding support and funding for Planned Parenthood. “People are talking about fetal tissue, but really what this discussion is about is abortion,” says Shari Gelber, a specialist in maternal–fetal medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City, who has argued for the value of the research.
Cell lines derived from fetal tissue have been fairly commonplace in research and medicine since the creation in the 1960s of the WI-38 cell strain, which was derived at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and MRC-5, which came from a Medical Research Council laboratory in London. Viruses multiply readily in these cells, and they are used to manufacture many globally important vaccines, including those against measles, rubella, rabies, chicken pox, shingles and hepatitis A.
In the past 25 years, fetal cell lines have been used in a roster of medical advances, including the production of a blockbuster arthritis drug and therapeutic proteins that fight cystic fibrosis and haemophilia.
Trump’s stance is contrary to facts. Part of the overall plan to “make America great again” apparently includes an attack on reason, intelligence, and fact-based science.
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