On Monday, September 24th, the Trump Administration canceled a human fetal tissue research contract that had been brokered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with a company called Advanced Bioscience Resources on the grounds that “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations” needed to be investigated. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) further stated that it would determine if “adequate alternatives exist to the use of human fetal tissue in HHS funded research and will ensure that efforts to develop such alternatives are funded and accelerated.”
The debate over how to ethically utilize embryonic stem cells for the discovery and development of new therapeutics for difficult-to-treat medical conditions dogged prior presidents and has now morphed into the fetal tissue controversy that the current administration has engaged.
In 2000, shortly after George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States, he issued an executive order that severely limitedgovernment-fundedd scientific research into embryonic stem cells. This recent declaration by the Trump Administration is likely a political maneuver to galvanize one of the remaining conservative blocks of voters loyal to the President just ahead of the 2018 midterm elections: evangelicals. Monetarily speaking, the canceled contract amounted to just $15,900 that would be given to Advanced Bioscience Resources for a quantity of human fetal tissue that government-sponsored scientists would use to modify laboratory mice such that their immune systems would behave more like that of a human.
Scientists have developed a means for transforming a mouse immune system such that it responds to a variety of diseases in a way that a human immune system would. Such a model system allows researchers to test experimental vaccines and treatments on mice without risk to people. Such an approach has been used to produce therapeutics for chickenpox, rubella, measles, polio, rabies, shingles and other diseases. Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, an expert from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine explained that such mice are “incredibly valuable for research of terrible diseases, and there is really no alternative” available to modern medicine.
Similar to the reasoning for the Bush Administration’s executive order, the subject of fetal tissue research has been conflated with the politics of abortion rights. Indeed, the decision by the Trump Administration has been hailed by David Daleiden, a fervent anti-abortion advocate, who has previously used covert video recordings to cast exchanges of human tissue for scientific research in a bad light. He asserted that the “review of fetal tissue procurement and experimentation must be exacting and it must terminate all other agreements for baby body parts.”
Alta Charo, a law professor specializing in biomedical ethics at the University of Wisconsin takes a contrarian position and reinforced the contention that the move by the Trump Administration was driven purely by political motivations in a statement saying: “my instinct is that this is driven by politics, and is part of the overall effort to stigmatize and eventually criminalize abortion, as well as part of a larger campaign to roll-back the clock on sexual and reproductive rights.”
The last time the issue of human fetal tissue flared up in the public forum was back in 2015, when an undercover video was made public depicting a Planned Parenthood surgeon coldly describing the procedure for the collection of embryonic cells from aborted fetuses. Also captured in the video was the doctor negotiating the cost of harvested fetal body parts in a somewhat callous fashion that even made supporters of the use of fetal tissue uncomfortable. Shortly after the video went viral, administrators at Planned Parenthood decried the misleading nature of the video and issued a statement saying that the physician in the video was only describing the “standard reimbursement fees for costs associated with tissue donation programs.”
The Center for Medical Progress that released the inflammatory video sought to discredit Planned Parenthood as an organization that profited off aborted fetuses, inferring that a supply-and-demand situation was being nurtured. The video was ultimately shown to have been cleverly edited to make the conversation seem untoward, and that the uncut version showed the Planned Parenthood official trying to dissuade the notion of profiting from the supply of fetal tissue.
Despite the political uproar that the video sparked, a Congressional Research Service report concluded that embryonic cells collected from aborted fetuses have been useful in the understanding and development of cells which “mimic many of the properties that they have in a living body, and therefore, can be used as a model for researchers studying basic biological processes.”