New medical research has quickly advanced doctors’ understanding of how the Zika virus infects a fetus and how to detect its presence much earlier in a woman’s pregnancy. These findings — released Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine — would have been impossible to uncover without the help of one crucial, yet controversial, resource: tissue collected from an aborted fetus infected by Zika.
The study was published the same day GOP members of the House “Panel on Infant Lives” issued subpoenas to eight major medical institutes, demanding the names of every researcher who uses fetal tissue in their work. Called a “witch hunt” by fellow members of Congress, this mission is meant to intimidate scientists into ceasing their work with fetal tissue.
Fetal tissue is a common medical resource that upsets conservative lawmakers because some of these samples are the result of an abortion. Ironically, however, the new findings published in The New England Journal of Medicine illustrate the vital role this tissue plays in doing exactly what the House panel allegedly sought out to do: saving future infants’ lives.
A Zika-infected woman, who had an abortion after learning her unborn baby had severe brain damage, donated the fetus to doctors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. By investigating the brain cells and other bacteria, the doctors discovered two previously unknown and “alarming” features to the rapidly-spreading virus.
First, they discovered that Zika’s unusually long presence in the woman’s bloodstream meant her fetus was infected — and had been repeatedly infecting her. The doctors also found that pregnant women can learn if their fetus has a brain abnormality weeks before microcephaly — the brain-shrinking fetal disease linked to Zika — can be tested.
This data is good news for women who live in the 12 states where it’s illegal to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks into a pregnancy, which is often far too early in the gestational period for doctors to detect microcephaly. According to the study, an ultrasound between the 16th and 20th weeks of pregnancy can easily detect a reduction in the rate of brain development that fit the criteria of microcephaly.
Researchers noted that their work — and others — could help further understand the connection between Zika and fetal brain damage, to successfully eradicate it altogether.
If anti-abortion lawmakers successfully shutter fetal tissue research, however, it could stop all Zika work in its tracks. And it could actually increase the number of abortions across the globe, as more women have early abortions out of the fear their fetus may be infected. Additionally, it would halt all other crucial research that relies on fetal tissue, like advancing treatment for Parkinson’s disease, cancer, AIDS, and a range of other degenerative diseases.
“To better understand the pathogenesis of Zika… it is necessary to evaluate autopsy and placental tissues from additional cases,” wrote Roosecelis Brasil Martines, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expert in infectious diseases, in a February report.
With such crucial information on the line, liberal members of Congress have voiced their concerns in the House panel’s mission to derail fetal tissue research.
‘“With this new attempt to single out individuals and get in the way of lifesaving research, House Republicans have sunk to a new low,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in a Thursday press release. “It is only becoming clearer that this investigation is short on facts and long on politics, and it’s time for Republicans to realize that enough is enough.”