The Trump administration on Wednesday announced that it would end fetal tissue research by federal scientists, despite strong evidence of the benefits of using fetal tissue to research treatments and diseases that affect millions of people, including HIV, human development disorders, and various cancers.
Ironically, the administration positioned the move as a way to protect the “dignity of human life.” In a statement Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services said, “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President [Donald] Trump’s administration.”
The Trump administration’s decision signals a major break with past presidents of both parties, who have overseen federal funding of fetal tissue research for decades. Still, fetal tissue research has long been embroiled in controversy, and was already heavily regulated under the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993.
According to the Washington Post, a University of California-San Francisco laboratory that had a multi-year contract with the National Institutes of Health is one of the first to be affected. There, researchers, whose sole source of funding was the federal government, were tasked with testing HIV therapies using “humanized mice.” Because HIV only affects human immune systems, it is not possible to study the disease in animals unless they have immune systems similar to humans.
The administration’s move is being celebrated by anti-choice activists, who have 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.”
Scientists, meanwhile, including those within the government, argue that there are no alternatives to fetal tissue — which would otherwise be thrown in the trash if not donated to science — when it comes to studying certain diseases and treatments. Indeed, as the Guttmacher Institute has said, barriers to fetal tissue research “would have substantial consequences.”
Those consequences are many. As one scientist said in December 2018, soon after the Trump administration began severely curtailing fetal tissue research, “This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV.”
Fetal tissue research has, over the years, resulted in key medical achievements, from the creation of rubella and rabies vaccines to the development of HIV treatments. According to Guttmacher Institute, these developments have saved the lives of billions of people worldwide. Researchers are also working on using fetal tissue to treat strokes and ALS, and may also be used for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
In an October 2015 letter to Congress, 41 scientists urged lawmakers to stop interfering with science and research, writing, “politics has no place in important discussions about research and its role in advancing treatments and cures for diseases and conditions that harm people everyday … Fetal tissue research has already saved and improved the lives of countless people. [We] cannot allow political agendas to undermine our nation’s legacy of leadership in medical and scientific innovation.”