Pushed by anti-abortion groups, HHS restricts fetal tissue research
The Trump administration Wednesday imposed new restrictions on federal use of fetal tissue obtained from abortions, barring government scientists at NIH from doing such research, and canceling an existing HIV research contract with the University of California, San Francisco.
HHS also said it will impose new ethics reviews on government-funded research at universities and other scientific centers seeking to use fetal tissue, potentially affecting more than $100 million in contracts. It will also continue to explore if there are alternatives to using tissue derived from abortion at all, an initiative that has divided the health department since it was announced last year.
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“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” HHS said in a statement. “[NIH internal] research that requires new acquisition of fetal tissue from elective abortions will not be conducted.”
The decision came after a heated debate within the Trump administration that pitted the White House against HHS, which sought a less restrictive policy, two officials told POLITICO.
Anti-abortion groups — which had pushed the Trump administration to cancel all contracts that involved fetal tissue research, arguing that the work is unethical — celebrated the move. “This is a major pro-life victory,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said.
But research groups like the International Society for Stem Cell Research warned that the decision puts medical research at risk, saying that scientists rely on fetal tissue to develop vaccines and develop cures for degenerative diseases. In the past, fetal tissue research has contributed to such scientific breakthroughs as vaccines for polio, chicken pox and hepatitis A.
The stem cell society also decried the suggestion that their research was encouraging women to have abortions.
“There is no evidence that the use of donated tissue from fetal remains has any effect on whether women choose abortions, and no evidence that decades of research using donated tissue has ever led to an increase in the number of abortions,” said Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin.
The UCSF contract, which sought to find new HIV therapies, was due to expire Wednesday after the Trump administration granted a 90-day extension. UCSF officials said the decision ends the university’s 30-year partnership with NIH, which required fetal tissue to search for HIV cures.
“We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science,” UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said in a statement.
HHS currently funds about 200 outside projects that use fetal tissue obtained from abortion, but those contracts will not be immediately affected or undergo additional review, an agency spokesperson said. HHS will appoint an ethics advisory board to review future research projects that use fetal tissue and seek federal funding.
Three active NIH projects use fetal tissue from abortions, the HHS spokesperson said, without offering further details.
The new restrictions had been closely guarded and fiercely debated within the Trump administration. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and domestic policy chief Joe Grogan had pushed for the outright ban on NIH using fetal tissue obtained from abortion, said the two officials with knowledge of those conversations.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar had argued for a less restrictive policy that would have allowed ongoing research on tissue acquired from research institutions, those officials told POLITICO.
The White House said that the administration was unified on its new fetal tissue policy. “This was the President’s decision, not a Joe Grogan or Alex Azar decision,” said deputy press secretary Judd Deere.
The controversy over federal use of fetal tissue exploded in 2015 when an anti-abortion group released videos purportedly showing Planned Parenthood profiting from sale of the tissues. Planned Parenthood said the videos were edited to be intentionally misleading, and a Texas grand jury subsequently cleared the organization of any wrongdoing. But the furor continued, and the Justice Department has probed Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue contracts.
Prompted by anti-abortion groups, Trump’s health department conducted a six-month review of federal use of fetal tissue. Anti-abortion advocates — including David Daleiden, who made the videos — hailed today’s outcome but said they were expecting the Trump administration to further crack down on research funding.
“It was a good step, but a preliminary step to stop the trafficking in fetal tissue,” David Prentice of the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute said on a call with reporters. “We look forward to more.”