SALT LAKE CITY — The Trump administration’s decision to sharply curtail research on fetal tissue moved the abortion debate from the legislature to the laboratory, with both sides claiming the ethical high ground.
Abortion opponents, who recently adopted the slogan “Pro-Life is Pro-Science,” have seized on new medical developments, including the increasing survival rates for extremely premature babies, in forging a strategy that has led to some of the most restrictive state laws since abortion was made legal.
They cheered the Department of Health and Human Service's decision, announced Wednesday, as the end of a "grisly" practice that devalues human life.
But many scientists and physicians decried the orders as political maneuvering that amounts to a "ban on hope” for desperately ill people.
"It will affect everything from cures for cancer and HIV through to Parkinson's and dementia," Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor specializing in public health law at Georgetown University, told Abby Goodnough of The New York Times.
Lost in much of the rhetoric is a sober discussion of what fetal-tissue research has accomplished, and how it is done. That's because even the science has been subsumed into the volatile debate, with people disagreeing, for example, on how much fetal-tissue research contributed to the development of the polio vaccine.
Here's a look at what both sides are saying, and how fetal-tissue research is done.
What HHS did
The June 5 announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services was expected.
The agency had announced last fall that it was reviewing federal policies on using remains of aborted fetuses for research, and advisers to the president have included scholars from the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research and education arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that works to end abortion.
HHS canceled a multimillion-dollar contract with the University of California at San Francisco that has been in place since 2013 and said it would end all research involving tissue from abortions within the National Institutes of Health.
The agency also said any university research funded with NIH grants would be subject to approval by an ethics advisory board.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the decision was made by the president, The Washington Post reported.
Support for fetal-tissue research, which first began in the 1930s, has waxed and waned over the years, according to which political party is in power. President Ronald Reagan ordered it stopped in 1988; President Bill Clinton restored it in 1993.
Like Reagan, President Donald Trump has said that he is "strongly pro-life," with the three exceptions — rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother — and the president appears to be counting on approval from abortion opponents to bolster his chances for re-election.
He has tweeted, "We must stick together and Win. ... for Life in 2020."
The movement has momentum. In this year alone, seven stateshave enacted bans on abortion in all or most circumstances, and 20 states prohibit abortions at 18 to 22 weeks.
How tissue is used
Fetal tissue used in research is obtained from fetuses collected after abortions or miscarriages.
According to the NIH, fetal cells are cultivated in laboratory dishes, and they multiply, creating "cell lines" that can be used for decades.
The most famous cell line was the subject of the 2017 movie "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Researchers obtained cells without consent from Lacks, who was dying from cervical cancer, creating the HeLa cell line, which is still used today.
Other cell lines that have been established using fetal tissue have also stirred controversy. Planned Parenthood came under fire after undercover videos released in 2015 exposed conversations about providing aborted fetuses for research.
But individuals can also opt to donate fetal remains from an abortion or miscarriage.
The American Medical Association has said that fetal-tissue research "has led to the development of a number of important research and medical advances, such as the development of polio vaccine."
However, at a hastily called news conference Wednesday, featuring scholars from the Charlotte Lozier Institute and the Susan B. Anthony List, participants contended that the "grisly and disturbing practice" has not resulted in any substantial benefit to science.
"Not one successful treatment has come through fetal-tissue research," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that promotes public policy toward ending abortion. (The group says that its namesake was against abortion, although this is contested by some people who say Anthony's writing was misinterpreted.)
And David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education and research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, disputed widespread claims that fetal-tissue research is responsible for the polio vaccine are wrong.
"Some of the earliest attempts at growing viruses sometimes used cultures of mixed human fetal tissue," Prentice said in an email. But, he added, the importance of fetal cells in research is overstated. The polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were both produced using laboratory-cultured monkey tissue, he said.
And while some poliovirus has been produced through fetal cells, Prentice believes it's wrong to say the fetal-tissue research is responsible for the vaccine.
"HeLa cells were also used in the past to make some polio vaccine, but it would be likewise misleading to say that polio vaccine was produced in human cervical carcinoma tissue," Prentice said.
The Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Henrietta Lacks was treated, says on its website that HeLa cells played a "crucial role" in the development of the polio vaccine, while the NIH says fetal-tissue research "produced one of the major medical breakthroughs of our time, the development of polio vaccine through the use of fetal cell lines in the 1950s."
At the University of California at San Francisco, where the government contract for $2 million a year was not renewed, researchers were testing HIV therapies using “humanized mice" — mice injected with fetal cells.
Fetal cells are also transplanted into patients whose own cells are degenerating. According to the NIH, the first such use occurred in 1982 in Sweden, when doctors put fetal brain cells into a patient suffering from Parkinson's disease.
"Since that time, animal and human experiments (many of the human experiments have been done outside the United States or with private funds) have examined the usefulness of transplanting fetal cells to cure or lessen the effects of diabetes, certain blood disorders, radiation poisoning, and a variety of neurological disorders," according to a report by the Institute of Medicine, called "Fetal Research and Applications."
In its Code of Medical Ethics, the American Medical Association says that ethical issues surrounding research on fetal tissue include the possibility that a woman might be influenced to have an abortion when tissue donation is an option, and also "the possible financial benefit to those who are involved in the retrieval, storage, testing, preparation and delivery of fetal tissues."
To protect the interests of pregnant women and "the integrity of science," the AMA recommends that no money be exchanged for fetal tissue, that there be voluntary and informed consent from the woman, and that the decision to have an abortion is made prior to any discussion of consent.
For abortion opponents, the problem with fetal tissue research goes beyond those considerations.
"It is utterly dehumanizing to use a preborn human being as raw material for scientific experiments, and it is wholly inappropriate for taxpayers to support such unethical research," Maureen Ferguson, senior fellow for The Catholic Association, said in a statement.
And March for Life president Jeanne Mancini said, "This type of research involves the gross violation of basic human rights and certainly the government has no business funding it.”19 comments on this story
On Twitter and elsewhere, however, supporters of fetal-tissue research decried administration's announcement, with one Twitter user noting that people are welcome to donate their body to science after their death, and often applauded for it, but that there will be no similar option for fetal remains, at least under the umbrella of the government.
"The Trump administration is mandating that fetal tissue be thrown away instead of given to researchers who need it to develop treatments for diseases that affect all Americans. This shameful politicization of science hurts both our politics and science," John Charpentier, a Ph.D. candidate in immunology at the University of Michigan, tweeted.