Don’t Stand in the Way of Fetal Tissue Research

(The Bloomberg View) -- Researchers have been working with fetal tissue in the U.S. for some 80 years, to the enormous benefit of medical science. They’ve observed, for instance, how the youngest human cells develop into muscle, brain and other tissues. They’ve injected fetal cells into mice to make them humanlike enough for drug-testing. They’ve grown fetal cell lines to produce vaccines against any number of viruses.

It’s no wonder that scientists insist on the freedom to conduct such work, that Congress has deliberately legalized it, and that every year the National Institutes of Health funds a good share of it. But the Trump administration is unimpressed, and has decided to throw obstacles in the way.

In September, after prominent anti-abortion activists wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, saying they were “shocked” that the Food and Drug Administration was about to pay $15,900 for fetal tissue to create humanized mice for drug-testing, Azar canceled the contract and ordered an audit of all fetal-tissue purchases — including, apparently, those of nongovernment scientists who are funded by federal grants. HHS said it was “not sufficiently assured” that all the requisite legal protections are in place.

That’s odd, considering that the FDA had already vouched for the contract. And there was no particular cause for suspicion. The company involved has followed federal rules on fetal-tissue procurement — ensuring for example that the donors and researchers give written consent and that no profit is made.

Questioning the legality of fetal-tissue procurement has become a favored gambit for anti-abortion activists. This started a few years ago with a video stunt which falsely suggested that Planned Parenthood officials were trafficking illegally in the material. A Texas grand jury exonerated the nonprofit, but the activists continue to charge, without evidence, that companies procuring fetal tissue for science might be breaking the law.

Their argument has gotten nowhere on Capitol Hill. In passing the 2019 spending bill, Congress again declined to cut off funding for fetal-tissue research. So activists have turned to the executive branch, where they’re seeing results. HHS’s pointless audit is a significant win: It will delay and obstruct essential work.

HHS promises to push for alternatives to the use of fetal tissue in research. But other approaches — including adult stem cells — don’t work as well. Fetal cells are less differentiated, and therefore more flexible, than adult cells. And tissue from elective abortions, unlike that from miscarriages, is easier to obtain under controlled conditions, and less likely to contain developmental abnormalities.

Elective abortions, of course, are what the activists want to stop: They believe fetal-tissue research encourages them. The idea is risible. Abortions are carried out to stop dangerous or unwanted pregnancies, as U.S. law allows. Having made that choice, women who then donate the fetal tissue are helping science to advance, which benefits everybody. There’s no good reason to make this more difficult.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.