WASHINGTON – The Trump administration said Wednesday that it is ending medical research by government scientists that uses human fetal tissue.
The Health and Human Services Department said in a statement that government-funded research by universities that involves fetal tissue can continue for now, subject to additional scrutiny – although it also ended one major university project that used the tissue to test HIV treatments. That school – University of California, San Francisco – called the decision “politically motivated.”
Administration officials said the federal policy changes will not affect privately funded research.
The government has funded research using fetal tissue for decades, under administrations of both political parties. But ending the use of fetal tissue by the National Institutes of Health has been a priority for anti-abortion activists, a core element of President Donald Trump's political base. But research using fetal tissue has led to lifesaving advances, including development of vaccines for rubella and rabies and drugs to treat HIV.
Scientists around the country denounced the decision, saying that fetal tissue was critically needed for research on HIV vaccines, treatments that harness the body's immune system to battle cancer, and other health threats, including some to fetuses themselves.
“Prohibiting valuable research that uses fetal tissue that is otherwise going to be discarded doesn't make any sense,” said Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, a regenerative medicine specialist at the University of California, San Diego. “It blocks important future research vital to the development of new therapies.”
The government's own top medical scientist, NIH Director Francis Collins, said last year he believes “there's strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research” and that fetal tissue, rather than any alternatives, would “continue to be the mainstay” for certain types of research for the foreseeable future.
Last year, the administration announced a review of whether taxpayer dollars were being properly spent on fetal tissue research. As a result, NIH froze procurement of new tissue. On Wednesday, the administration also said it is not renewing an expiring contract with the University of California, San Francisco, that used fetal tissue to create a human-like immune system in mice for HIV research.
HHS says it is trying to balance “pro-life” and “pro-science” imperatives.
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said the Trump administration has “once again done the right thing in restoring a culture of life to our government.”
The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that works to elect lawmakers opposed to abortion, said in a statement that taxpayer funding ought to go to promoting alternatives to using fetal tissue in medical research. The NIH is funding a $20 million program to “develop, demonstrate, and validate experimental models that do not rely on human fetal tissue from elective abortions.”
But the scientific consensus is that there is no adequate substitute for fetal tissues in some research areas. For example, to learn how the mosquito-borne Zika virus moves from a pregnant woman's bloodstream into her fetus and attacks the developing brain – and how to prevent that – requires studying fetal brain cells, neuroscientist Sally Temple of the Neural Stem Cell Institute in New York wrote in the journal Science this year.