The anti-abortion movement has long tried to end government funding for fetal tissue research, an issue that became a major flash point in 2015 when a heavily edited video falsely claimed that Planned Parenthood is “selling aborted baby parts.”
Now, the Trump administration is curtailing the use of human fetal tissue in medical research, as part of an internal audit and comprehensive review of all policies at federal agencies. So far, the administration ordered scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to stop acquiring any new fetal tissue for research, and shut down at least one-government run study aimed at discovering a cure for HIV, as first reported by Science.
“This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV,” said a Montana researcher in an email from late September, acquired by Science.
The researchers at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana use fetal tissue from Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR), “the only provider of fetal tissue for scientists in the nation who don’t have direct access to aborted fetal tissue,” according to the researcher. Using the fetal tissue donated by people who have legal abortions, scientists create “humanized mice” that have immune systems like humans and, thus, are critical to testing and developing new drugs.
NIH also told Science that the “pause” of further procurements, pending audit and review, affects two other laboratories.
In late September, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it terminated a contract between ABR and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), citing the agency wasn’t “sufficiently assured that the contract included the appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research.” As a result, HHS is conducting an agency-wide audit and comprehensive review of fetal tissue research. It’s also looking into alternatives. The administration intends to hold several listening sessions with various stakeholders, including anti-abortion groups, according to Politico.
ThinkProgress reached out to HHS for further comment and clarification on the audit/review, but did not immediately hear back. But NIH did respond with an emailed statement:
Research with tissue already on hand could proceed, and NIH leaders asked to be notified by intramural investigators if new procurement would be necessary. This did not occur with [Montana researcher Kim] Hasenkrug’s research. The intent was never to cause research to stop. NIH is currently assessing if there are other NIH intramural research projects that require procurement of new fetal tissue to determine appropriate next steps to prevent interruption of research.
Fetal tissue research is already heavily regulated under the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993. Moreover, science and medical organizations have told lawmakers that other cells cannot be used to replace fetal tissue in biomedical research.
Ending over $100 million in federal funding for fetal tissue research is among the anti-abortion movement’s top priorities. Representatives with Susan B. Anthony List, March for Life, and other prominent groups met with administration officials late November, aiming to pressure the White House to end such funding, according to Rewire.News.
Vice President of Government Affairs for March for Life, Tom McClusky, told the Hill, “The problem has always been with the NIH and their director, Francis Collins,” an Obama-era appointee who oversaw the agency as it spent more than $103 million on fetal tissue in fiscal 2018.
The anti-abortion movement has scored plenty of wins under the Trump administration. For example, the administration proposed a Reagan-era policy known as the “domestic gag rule,” which would prohibit Title X dollars from going to abortion providers. While the Senate’s confirmation of conservative federal judges is the most obvious assault on reproductive rights, there are other insidious ways the movement is leaving its mark.
This story has been updated to include comment from NIH.