Banning fetal tissue research

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 22nd of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, the benefits of medical research.

Alexander Fleming, for example, discovered penicillin in 1928. By some estimates that discovery has so far saved 200 million people from death due to bacterial infection.

And this month, the development of microrobots that can deliver drugs directly to diseased tissue.

But what about the ethics of how some of this research is done.

REICHARD: Yes, it’s fraught with dilemmas.  

And nowhere is it more obvious than when researchers use the parts of unborn children—tiny humans killed by abortion. The Trump administration has quietly moved to stop the practice at one agency.

Julie Borg is a science reporter for WORLD and wrote about this. She’s here now to talk about it.

Julie, how big a deal is this?

JULIE BORG, REPORTER: Oh, it’s a very big deal, Mary. It’s essentially a temporary ban, and it applies to NIH researchers. The National Institutes of Health. What the Trump administration is doing here is stopping these researchers from acquiring new human fetal tissue. Now, it’s typical that this comes from aborted babies, and the idea is to slow this down. There’s one other player here and it’s the Department of Health and Human Services. The ban stops labs from doing this until HHS can review just how fetal tissue is being obtained and used in research labs. So, yes, very big deal.

REICHARD: And to clarify: does this ban all research using fetal tissue?

BORG: No. The ban is only on acquiring new fetal tissue. Labs can still use tissue they already have. And it only affects researchers who work directly for the National Institutes of Health. Researchers who work at universities and receive government grants are not affected. But the government is also reviewing grants and contracts awarded to outside researchers who use fetal tissue.

REICHARD: Well, I assume this move is the result of pressure from pro-life advocates?

BORG: Yes, pro-life supporters have long argued that ends don’t justify the means when it comes to research. They say N-I-H has allowed researchers to sacrifice a group of defenseless humans for the benefit of others. I like how a molecular and cell biology researcher put it. Tara Sander Lee is with the Charlotte Lozier Institute. I’ll quote her here: “Using the preborn as objects or means of experimentation, no matter what the outcome might prove or promise to be, constitutes an assault against their dignity as human beings created by God.”

REICHARD: I suspect some others in the scientific community disagree with her on that.  

BORG: Yeah, you can say that again! Many researchers who use these tissues and don’t see anything wrong with abortion are enraged about it. They claim the restraint will prevent them from continuing with necessary medical research such as studies to find a cure for HIV or the Zika virus.

REICHARD: I’m wondering why was this ban made in the first place?

BORG: Well, it stems from those horrendous videos that came out in 2015. You know, the videos where Planned Parenthood reps cavalierly talked about selling parts of aborted babies. A congressional committee was set up to investigate all that. And that arose from 1993 when the Clinton administration and Congress approved the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research.

REICHARD: About that committee set up to investigate claims that fetal parts are crucial to ongoing research…Has the panel completed its investigation?

BORG: Yes, the panel released its report in 2017. It found the overwhelming majority of research studies do not require fetal tissue, including those for the Zika virus. They found such research to be unproductive and unnecessary.

REICHARD: So for those few studies that do require fetal tissue, are there alternatives to using tissue from aborted fetuses?

BORG: Oh, yes. The committee recommended several. For example, researchers can use adult tissue, or fetal cells and tissue from the cadavers of stillborn or preborn infants who died naturally. And if stem cells are required, lots of research has been done using adult stem cells and cord blood. Cord blood has a wealth of stem cells in it, so fetal parts aren’t needed for that.

REICHARD: What is the government’s next step, then?

BORG: It’s putting some teeth into this. $20 million dollars over the next two years will go to research into alternatives to fetal tissue. That announcement from the National Institutes of Health. So it’ll be interesting to see what alternatives might exist.

REICHARD: And I know you’ll keep tracking developments for us. Julie Borg is a WORLD correspondent based in Ohio and writes a weekly WORLD Digital roundup called Beginnings. Julie, thanks!

BORG:  You’re welcome, Mary.


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