The Trump administration on Wednesday announced new rules for federal funding of medical research that, over time, will sharply reduce and quite possibly end government support for studies that use tissue from aborted fetuses.
The directive, which came from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), won praise from abortion rights opponents, who say the use of such tissue is immoral and who have been lobbying the administration hard for such a ban.
But scientists from around the country spoke out against the decision, noting that fetal tissue research has been instrumental in developing treatments or cures for polio, cystic fibrosis and hemophilia, among other conditions, and that, without federal funding, promising avenues of research into everything from the Zika virus to certain cancers would slow or stop altogether.
The announcement’s immediate effect is a halt to fetal tissue studies taking place within the National Institutes of Health and the end of federal funding for a project at the University of California, San Francisco, whose contract with HHS was expiring. That project, which the federal government had supported for 30 years, focused on studying and developing treatments for HIV, which is among the research areas in which scientists have used fetal research most extensively.
“We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science,” UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said.
HHS officials said they would not cut off funds to programs whose contracts are still in force. But once those contracts are up for renewal, they will be subject to an HHS ethics review, and supporters of the researchers were highly pessimistic about the outcome.
“I think the chance of that committee approving fetal tissue for anything is next to zero,” Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The decision did not come out of nowhere. The Trump administration announced a review of its funding policies last year, and, as Politico has reported, internal deliberations pitted the White House against HHS leaders, who wanted less aggressive restrictions. The White House prevailed.
Opponents of abortion rights have said scientists can rely on alternatives to fetal tissue, and NIH has funded studies into developing such alternatives. But that effort has yet to bear fruit, and scientists have said it is unlikely to do so, especially when it comes to research into subjects ― like Zika, in utero transmission of HIV or the development of congenital deformities ― in which the whole point is to study fetal development.
Among those cheering the decision was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House minority whip. “It is reprehensible for anyone to profit from the tragedy of abortion and the Trump Administration is making that clear by saying no to this ethically tainted research,” he said, echoing the arguments of groups that oppose abortion rights.
Scientists, in response, reiterated that there was no reason to think the research would actually increase the number of abortions. If scientists don’t use the tissue, it will simply be destroyed.
“There’s no evidence that the opportunity to donate tissue from fetal remains has ever led anyone to choose to have an abortion she might not otherwise have chosen,” R. Alta Charo, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, told the Los Angeles Times. “In no way does it affect the number of abortions. In no way does it affect the number of fetuses that die.”
Charo noted that the treatments fetal tissue research could help generate would frequently help very young people, including newborns. “For purely symbolic reasons, this is halting research that might actually save babies and children.”