The Anti-Choice War on Fetal Tissue Research Got a Congressional Hearing

Fetal tissue research has again become a controversial issue as anti-choice groups pressure the Trump administration to end its federal funding.

[Photo: A sign at the entrance to a House Oversight Committee hearing room.]
Democrats on the committee focused on the effect fetal tissue research has had on modern medical breakthroughs. Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

The anti-choice movement’s ongoing war on fetal tissue research moved to the halls of the U.S. Congress on Thursday as lawmakers held a congressional committee hearing seeking input on potential fetal tissue alternatives for use in medical and scientific research.

The hearing, held by two House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees, was chaired by anti-choice Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) who also chairs the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. Three witnesses presented testimony on potential alternatives to fetal tissue research, including two people with ties to the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the “research” arm of anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List.

Democrats on the committee focused on the effect fetal tissue research has had on modern medical breakthroughs. “For more than 80 years, scientists have relied upon the unique qualities of fetal tissue cells, which are able to adapt to new environments in ways that adult cells are not, to make life-saving advances in modern medicine and fight diseases that ravage communities around the world,” said ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) in his opening statement. “Fetal tissue research has helped contribute to vaccines for polio, chicken pox, rubella, and shingles, medical achievements responsible for saving thousands of lives.”

Tara Sander Lee, an associate scholar at CLI and a witness at the hearing, disputed the importance of fetal tissue research. “Very little research is actually being done that currently relies on abortion-derived fetal tissues,” she said, pointing out that fetal tissue research is just 0.36 percent of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget.

However, Dr. Sally Temple, board member and former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and another hearing witness, listed several key therapies developed using fetal tissue in her opening statement, chief among them Truvada, a medication which prevents the transmission of HIV.

While Temple agreed with the other two experts that alternatives to fetal tissue should be utilized whenever possible, she cautioned against heavy-handed government intervention on the issue. “The consensus opinion is those alternatives are not sufficient,” Temple said. “The critical thing is it will not substitute for every application and for every disease. But scientists will use alternatives where they are available. We see the value in it … Scientists will only use it if it’s essential, and if it’s important. You cannot misrepresent the science.”

Temple went on to explain that it is critical that researchers be allowed to continue use of fetal tissue in their work instead of being forced into government-mandated alternatives. “If the work on fetal research and fetal tissue is stopped, what that means is that we are halting very important research into cancer, into HIV, into children’s tumors, and the cost of this is going to be huge.”

Sander Lee and David Prentice, who is an advisory board member for the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center and has ties to CLI, suggested that there are alternatives to fetal tissue. “These include, but are not limited to, fresh human tissues from adult and pediatric populations, donated and discarded biopsies and surgical specimens, from both living and post-mortem individuals,” said Sander Lee in her prepared statement.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus promised a new hearing on the matter once Democrats assume the House majority in January in a statement released Thursday. “Ideological intrusions into scientific research are nothing new in Washington, but the Trump Administration and their Republican allies in Congress have taken these attacks to a new level,” she said. “As the incoming chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I plan to hold a serious and substantive hearing about this important research.”

Fetal tissue research has again become a controversial issue under the Trump administration, as anti-choice groups—including the Susan B. Anthony List—have pushed U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and the White House to end federal funding of critical medical research using the material.

In September, HHS canceled a contract with fetal tissue provider Advanced Bioscience Resources Inc. (ABR) to provide tissue for the creation of humanized mice for testing purposes, since mice have similar immune systems and functions as humans. The agency said it was “not sufficiently assured” about how legal protocols relating to fetal tissue research were being followed by ABR. HHS also announced the agency would be initiating a “comprehensive review” of all fetal tissue research and would continue to look for alternatives to using fetal tissue in research.

HHS and NIH have reportedly already begun halting purchases of fetal tissue for research purposes, according to a Washington Post report published last week. The report also details a reported early cancellation of a $2 million grant utilizing fetal tissue for creating mice with human-like immune systems for testing drugs against HIV at the University of California, San Francisco.

An HHS spokesperson disputed the story in an email to Rewire.News. “No decision has been made on the extension of a University of California San Francisco contract with the NIH regarding research involving fetal tissue,” said HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley. “Unfortunately, the Washington Post chose to report assertions that are completely false. HHS strives to work transparently and productively with members of the media who accurately and responsibly cover issues related to the department.”

Since then, a Science Magazine Freedom of Information Act request turned up a letter from NIH to UCSF officials confirming several details of the disputed Post story. Questions from Rewire.News about the disputed accounts and the status of federal fetal tissue research funding were referred to NIH.

“To be clear, there is no pause in procurement of fetal tissue for extramural research (research conducted at institutions that receive funding from NIH),” said an NIH spokesperson in a statement to Rewire.News this week. “When HHS began its audit in September, NIH put a pause in place for procuring new human fetal tissue within its intramural program (research conducted by NIH investigators) until the conclusion of the audit, an action NIH thought was prudent given the examination of these procurements. Research with tissue already on hand could proceed, and NIH leaders asked to be notified by intramural investigators if new procurement would be necessary. Due to a miscommunication, this did not occur with one intramural research project, which has caused a delay for the start date. The intent was to pause procurement, not the research.”

NIH published a notice of intent for a funding opportunity for the development of alternatives to fetal tissue research on Monday, saying it was “interested in investing up to $20 [million] over the next two years.”

Several Trump administration officials with direct oversight of reproductive health and fetal tissue research have close ties with the Susan B. Anthony List. In November, Trump appointed Maureen Condic, a CLI-affiliated anti-choice bioethicist, to a six-year term on the National Science Board. The 25-member board advises the White House and Congress on critical scientific issues. President Trump himself spoke at the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual gala in May, praising his administration’s anti-choice policies.

 Editorial and Research Associate Laura Huss contributed to this report.