It’s this history that makes the Trump administration’s decision to throw bureaucratic hurdles at such research so disheartening. The anti-abortion sentiments of social conservatives are so potent, it appears, that they are willing to upend the work of scientists across the country to further their agenda, even if it means disrupting research that can do legitimate good for people.
So much for the “pro-life” legacy.
As The Post’s Amy Goldstein reported this week, officials in the Department of Health and Human Services rolled out a rule last June requiring those seeking money from the National Institutes of Health for any fetal tissue-related research to submit their grant applications to a new ethics advisory board. The ethics review would be in addition to the two-level process of external scientific review already required by the agency.
The rule is an attempt by the administration to gratify anti-abortion activists who object to the use of tissue from elective abortions in taxpayer-funded research. The rule mandates that no more than half the board members may be scientists; the other members must include at least one theologian, one ethicist, one physician and one attorney. Each member will be appointed by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, an abortion opponent, who will also have the final say in all decisions related to funding fetal tissue research. Given that HHS already announced that it will no longer allow government scientists at NIH to conduct studies with the tissue, the likelihood that such studies will get by the ethics review seems grim.
There’s another problem: The new ethics board doesn’t yet exist, and it may take months before it materializes. This has raised uncertainty and inhibits the field of research, given that no one wants to take up a research project with so much uncertainty in the funding process. Some scientists told The Post that they’re avoiding new fetal tissue-related research for fear that members of the board will be appointed and will claw back federal money from their projects. Researchers at the Humanized Mouse Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles — which uses fetal tissue to grow human immune systems inside mice — decided last year to forgo federal grants to avoid putting other funding at the university at risk.
It’s understandable for people to be uncomfortable about the use of aborted fetuses for medical research. It goes to the heart of the scandal that rocked Planned Parenthood a couple of years ago, when anti-abortion activists claimed the organization was profiting off fetal tissue from abortions. There was never any proof behind those claims (it has long been illegal to sell fetal tissue), but the false story resonated with people because it offered a financial motive for abortions.
But that’s a cynical view that doesn’t stand up to the facts and common sense. No woman is going to make the heart-wrenching decision to have an abortion because it might advance medical research. And given the law, no health-care practitioner has a financial incentive to perform the procedure to sell the tissue to researchers.
Those who oppose research using fetal tissue must contend with two basic facts: First, abortion remains legal, for better or worse, and abortions will continue to take place for the foreseeable future. This would be true even if the courts overturned Roe v. Wade, because the legality of abortion would fall then to the states. Though some red states have already passed laws that would outlaw or severely limit abortion if Roe were overturned, others would move to keep the procedure legal.
Second, if fetal tissue is not allowed to be used for research, it will be discarded. For moral absolutists who oppose abortion, this may be fine. But had that been the policy all along, society would be worse off. Even officials in the Trump administration have acknowledged that, in many cases, there are no easy alternatives in research to fetal tissue. Without it, we’d have fewer vaccines and fewer medical treatments for diseases. Most reasonable people would conclude that we’re better off having explored that science.
The most frustrating result of this debate has been the demonization of scientists. As The Post reported, many researchers are fearful of speaking publicly out of concern that anti-abortion activists would go after them. That’s a sad indictment of our current political climate, and it’s a moment for the Trump administration and the pro-life movement to realize a fundamental truth in politics: If scientists have become your enemy, you’re targeting the wrong people.