Recent opinion pieces express doom and gloom over new rules enacted by the Trump administration regarding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) federal taxpayer funding of research using human fetal tissue from elective abortions.
The policy is portrayed as bad for science. However, one recent piece by San Francisco-based professors Irving Weissman and Joseph McCune stretches to incredulity, reading more like science fiction and definitely misrepresenting the facts. Claims that “People will suffer and die for lack of adequate treatments” and that these restrictions are now “denying millions of Americans the fruits of such research” are irresponsible and really do fit the definition of fake news.
The most ludicrous line was an invitation to those who were responsible for the ban, and even those that agree with the ban (meaning a substantial portion of U.S. citizens), to sign a pledge that they will “never accept any cancer therapy, any AIDS medication, any cardiac drug, any lung disease treatment, any Alzheimer’s therapy, or any other medical advance that was developed using fetal tissue — including our mice.”
We recognize the differing opinions of some scientists and their concern for how these federal funding changes might impact specific labs and research.
But it’s contemptible to scare the public with over-exaggerated statements. Let’s get the facts straight.
In June 2019, HHS announced that it would discontinue intramural research (i.e., internal) projects involving fetal tissue from elective abortions at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It would also let expire an existing contract for human fetal tissue research with the University of California at San Francisco. Taxpayer money could no longer be used by NIH researchers to buy human fetal brains, livers, thymuses, or any other desired organ obtained from an elective abortion.
What Weissman and McCune do not tell you is that the many NIH-supported labs impacted by the new HHS rule continue to receive substantial federal funding, even after the new HHS rule took effect. In fact, the work out of Montana, mentioned in the Weissman and McCune article, received over half a million dollars in federal funding for fiscal year 2018 and then another half million for FY2019, after the new HHS rule. Some NIH labs that used human fetal tissue even received more funding in 2019 after the new rule took effect.
Scientific oppression? Really?
Clearly research does not stop when ethical guidelines are put in place. Science continues to move forward without exploiting human fetal tissue from ongoing abortions.
The claim that people will “suffer and die for lack of adequate treatments” is false. No patients will die from limiting funding of human fetal tissue use for research.
None of the vaccines, treatments, or FDA-approved cellular and gene therapy products on the market use human fetal tissue from elective abortions that rely on ongoing abortions.
Furthermore, Weissman and McCune are asking people to pledge not to use many treatments that don’t rely on aborted fetal tissue at all.
The majority of FDA-approved cellular and gene therapy products use cord blood-derived adult stem cells or a patient’s own cells for treatment. Adult stem cells have for decades been used to treat various blood disorders and cancers in more than two million individuals worldwide. In fact, the only stem cell-based products approved by the FDA for therapeutic patient use in the United States consist of blood-forming stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood, which are not obtained by abortion.
Numerous non-controversial alternatives exist for research that does not rely on abortions. Some of these alternatives are available now and sufficient for many research studies, including humanized mice made with stem cells from cord blood and free from ethical controversy. Others are still in development. Transitioning to ethical alternatives takes time and money. This is why the NIH has dedicated $20 million dollars in additional resources for exploring and developing alternatives to human fetal tissue from elective abortions.
The new policies are based on not only the best science, but also the best ethics. This is incredibly important, because it ensures that research continues on an upward path that does not rely on exploiting other human beings and their body parts. The ethical way is the only way to ensure that everyone will have access to all treatments.
Scientists, physicians, patients, and frankly every American should never have to make a choice to either sign “a pledge” that refuses future treatments or accept ethically tainted treatments that go against conscience. We as a society must never fail to innovate in ethical ways that respect the dignity and rights of all.
Tara Sander Lee, Ph.D. is Senior Fellow and Director of Life Sciences for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. David Prentice, Ph.D. is Vice President and Research Director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Kathleen Schmainda, Ph.D., Maria Feeney, Ph.D., and James L. Sherley M.D., Ph.D. are associate scholars with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.