Fetal tissue is uniquely valuable to medical researchers – useful for developing treatments and better understanding diseases such as HIV, Parkinson’s, and COVID-19.
But many anti-abortion rights groups oppose it for moral or religious reasons.
Now, Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, says he is lifting several restrictions on fetal tissue research that were introduced during the Trump administration.
Human fetal tissue (stock photo) Ed Reschke / Getty Images Hide caption
Ed Reschke / Getty Images
Ed Reschke / Getty Images
Here’s what you need to know:
What is fetal tissue research – and why do many scientists say it is necessary?
Fetal tissue is uniquely adaptable and useful for many types of scientific research.
Lawrence Goldstein, a distinguished professor at the University of California Medical School at San Diego, said that because these cells are not fully developed, they can be useful for many things – trying to develop replacement organs, for example.
“For example, if you’re trying to make a kidney from stem cells, you want to know that when the cells go down the kidney pathway, they usually do,” Goldstein said. “And so, comparing it to early fetal kidney cells that do this usually shows that you are on the right track or not.”
There are ethical requirements for tissue obtained from elective abortion: patients must understand what they are doing and agree to it. Doctors involved must confirm that they have obtained consent to have the tissue removed after a patient has already opted for an abortion.
But people who oppose abortion rights are often against this type of research, and socially conservative individuals have had a significant impact on the Trump administration.
What Was Trump’s Administrative Policy For Fetal Tissue Research – And What’s Changing Now?
The Trump administration took some action in 2019.
The first was a ban on NIH funding for so-called intramural research (essentially programs within the agency) that involved newly obtained fetal tissue from abortions. Second, a requirement that external applicants for NIH funds wishing to use fetal tissue had to go through an ethics panel review process. The board was convened by the Trump administration and, as critics noted, most board members were publicly against abortion rights.
Lawrence Goldstein of the UCSD School of Medicine was on that panel – although he was in the minority due to his support for fetal tissue research.
“It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience because well-deserved research projects that had already gone through several layers of scientific and ethical scrutiny went to this body to be killed,” he said.
What does this mean for the larger struggle for reproductive rights?
In a statement, Marjorie Dannenfelser of the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List said the decision would “force Americans to engage in barbaric experiments.” She also said this was another step in reversing the “pro-life progress” under Trump and Pence.
This action is part of something bigger – the movement against abortion rights is on the losing side of many political struggles at the federal level. As recently as this week, the Biden government announced steps to reverse changes to Title X’s family planning program that cut significant funding for groups like Planned Parenthood. That news came after the FDA announced it would temporarily relax restrictions on abortion pills during the pandemic.
So expect much more political battles over issues related to abortion rights in the years to come. At the same time that Biden is taking these federal measures, Conservatives still have a lot of power – in state legislatures and in the US Supreme Court.