A group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives wants the Trump administration to explain how it crafted new restrictions on fetal tissue research and what influence anti-choice groups had on the policy.
The letter, led by Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and signed by 30 additional House Democrats, questions the administration’s recently announced prohibition on government scientists from doing fetal tissue research. “Our message is simple: fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern, cutting-edge medical research,” it says.
Scientists, researchers, and advocacy groups have condemned the administration’s policy banning scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from conducting research using donated fetal tissue, noting the critical role the research plays in scientific development. The Democrats’ letter notes, “Research using fetal tissue has saved millions of lives through the development of vaccines for diseases that once ravaged communities across the world.”
“The elimination of long-standing federal funding will delay this critical research and set back the development of potential therapies for these and other infectious diseases,” it says.
The letter contained nine questions for U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar addressing how the policy came to be. It referenced “listening sessions” HHS held in November 2018 about fetal tissue research that included anti-choice groups, demanding to know which groups attended and what occurred during the sessions.
Another question asked about the administration’s “audit and review process” on the matter, which it launched in September 2018 following a letter from the anti-choice groups pressuring HHS to end the use of fetal tissue research. The letter asked whether there was additional contact beyond the sessions with anti-choice groups during that process.
It asked Azar to submit his response by July 12.
The letter called on Azar to reverse the administration’s decision on fetal tissue research.“The administration’s action is a grave step backward for the millions of patients waiting for cures and treatments,” it says. “We urge you to reconsider this policy shift and allow researchers to move forward with sound, responsible, and ethical science.”
Mary Alice Carter, senior advisor to watchdog group Equity Forward, told Rewire.News it is “very clear that anti-abortion groups have a huge influence in the administration writ large, but especially at HHS.” Equity Forward has identified roughly 50 “anti-abortion appointees who are affecting policy at various levels throughout” the agency, Carter said.
“When it comes to a place where it appears that ideology has been used to make decisions that should really be guided by science and evidence, it really is the role of Congress to provide oversight into how those decisions were made,” Carter said of the letter. “Especially when you’re looking at something that’s so critical, which is whether or not we are continuing research into diseases like Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, Zika, [and] really just public health crises that we would really like to see solved and have cures made for.”
Anti-choice groups have found a sympathetic ear at Trump’s HHS. The administration has elevated numerous abortion foes to positions within the health agency, including appointing the former head of an anti-choice crisis pregnancy network to oversee the department in charge of the Title X federal family planning program.
Carter said Equity Forward, like the signatories of the letter, would like to see “the documentation” of how the administration came to its decision on fetal tissue research. She suggested that the Congressional call for oversight is “incredibly important.”
“If you are going to make a decision that is this monumental, the public deserves to know how this decision was made and why,” she said.
While fetal tissue research has been federally funded since the 1950s, abortion rights foes doubled down on opposition to it after the anti-choice front group known as the Center for Medical Progress released deceptively edited videos in 2015 falsely claiming Planned Parenthood illegally profited from fetal tissue donations.