Two years into an administration that describes itself as “pro-life and pro-science,” the use of fetal tissue in scientific research has become the next skirmish in the nation’s half-century-old abortion wars.
This time, however, scientists who depend on cells from aborted human fetuses face not just a cadre of determined antiabortion activists but sympathetic officials within the government itself, from Vice President Pence to key officials in the Department of Health and Human Services.
At stake is critical federal funding for research into diseases that range from HIV to cancer to Zika, vaccine production and treatment for maladies such as Parkinson’s disease.
“The feeling that the science — which is hard enough to do — that there is a war on that, that it’s not respected, it’s demoralizing,” said Sally Temple, co-founder of the Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, N.Y.
Since HHS announced in late September a wide-ranging audit of the use of fetal tissue in federally funded research, groups that have long sought to outlaw its use say they are finally being heard. They view such research as morally repugnant and unnecessary because they contend other techniques can be used — an assertion many scientists reject.
“This is a pro-life administration,” said David Prentice, vice president and research director of the antiabortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, who said members of his group and the affiliated Susan B. Anthony List have met with Pence to press their case. “It’s just nice to have someone who will listen and not just close the door in your face.”
Prentice and Temple are slated to testify Thursday before two congressional subcommittees headed by two of the House’s most socially conservative members — Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — who are pushing the administration to ban funding for the research.
Brett Giroir, HHS assistant secretary for health, stressed Wednesday that no decisions have been made about the use of fetal tissue and there is no timetable for action.
“I would tell the scientists: Don’t overreact,” he said. “We’ve met with multiple groups. We are being transparent around this. The science part is being run by scientific people.”
Giroir said Pence did not prompt the review of fetal tissue research. HHS Secretary Alex Azar ordered it after the Food and Drug Administration contract with Advanced Bioscience came to his attention, he said.
“To my knowledge, nobody in the White House is involved,” Giroir said, “and they certainly haven’t been involved with me.”
According to an individual on Pence’s staff, the vice president remains interested in the issue, and members of his policy team have met with officials at HHS.
As governor of Indiana, Pence signed a law in 2016 criminalizing research that uses fetal tissue. Indiana University sued the state, the law was stayed and the case is on appeal.
At the same time HHS announced its audit, the government canceled a small FDA purchase of fetal tissue from Advanced Bioscience Resources, a supplier that became a target of fury after heavily doctored videos were released by antiabortion activists in 2015. The tapes purported to show a Planned Parenthood official discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
Officials have also been holding “listening sessions” with scientists, doctors and ethicists to seek out alternatives to fetal tissue research, as well as with opponents who deplore the use of tissue from livers, hearts, brains and other parts of aborted fetuses.
HHS has “paused” the acquisition of fetal tissue at a National Institutes of Health lab doing HIV research in Montana and told an investigator with the University of California at San Francisco that it would not renew a $2 million deal for testing possible HIV treatments nationwide in research mice — before backing off and agreeing to a 90-day extension.
NIH officials said a total of three research projects are affected by the pause. The two others disclosed for the first time are labs at the National Eye Institute and the National Cancer Institute. Cancer researchers will need more fetal tissue by the end of January, and the eye study will need more by the end of February, said a spokeswoman.
Earlier this week, NIH officials announced plans to offer as much as $20 million in grants for research to develop alternatives to the use of fetal tissue in research. They also have invited leading scientists to a Dec. 18 workshop to discuss options.
All of this comes after top health officials took other steps to advance the goals of social conservatives, from allowing businesses to opt out of an Affordable Care Act requirement that health plans include contraception coverage to creating a new “conscience and religious freedom” division within HHS’s Office for Civil Rights.
That has spurred concerns that an antiabortion administration might move next to limit funding of fetal tissue research.
Key people within HHS have strong ties to groups that have long opposed abortion and fetal tissue research, although it is not clear what role they are playing in this discussion.
Giroir’s chief of staff, Steven Valentine, used to work for Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus.
Smith organized a letter from 85 members of Congress to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in September, urging the cancellation of the fetal tissue contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources. Valentine’s brother, Billy, is vice president of public policy at the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List.
Researchers are concerned.
“It’s not just HIV research, but cancer research and Alzheimer’s research,” said Paula Cannon, a microbiologist at the University of Southern California who uses fetal tissue in her HIV studies. “There are so many types of research that benefit from fetal tissue. Everybody who has federal funding is now worried.”
In HIV research involving fetal tissue, scientists wipe out the immune systems of laboratory mice and implant thymus tissue, creating humanlike immune systems that allow them to test how drugs work against the virus.
Zika researchers use slices of fetal brains to see where and how the virus attacks, said Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at the University of California at San Diego.
Some vaccines also have been produced using fetal tissue.
But critics like Prentice maintain the same testing can be done using stem cells, especially ones reprogrammed to produce various kinds of human tissue.
“This is older science, using fetal tissue,” he said. “It’s a holdover from the way things have been done in the past, and there are multiple alternatives that are better science, more modern and can give us better answers.”
He has cited research by Matthew Brown, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who works on transplant immunology. In an interview, Brown said he was startled by such assertions, which he discovered when colleagues sent him a video of a Heritage Foundation forum where Prentice spoke.
His paper, published earlier this year, reported on promising, but early, work about a model for implanting into mice discarded thymus tissue from newborn babies who had undergone surgery. “It’s a rigorous paper, but it’s way too early . . . It is not sound, scientifically, to say at this point,” Brown said.
Goldstein, an expert on stem cells, said that after 60 years of work, researchers still can’t make them function as well as fetal tissue. In Zika research, for example, scientists want to know how the virus attacks the wide variety of cells in the brain. Stem cells can’t reproduce all those cells, he said.
“If we have the rug pulled out from under us, and we have to invent new models, it’s going to be really difficult,” said Temple, the Rensselaer researcher.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.