If you’ve followed the news over the past several days, it’d be easy enough to think that politicians on the right, without exception, are and have been unwavering opponents of fetal tissue research while politicians on the left have callously enabled the sale and donation of fetal tissue for research use. George Will’s observation that the “nonnegotiable tenet in today’s Democratic Party” is “opposition to any restriction on the right to inflict violence on pre-born babies” is fairly representative.
And also pretty misleading.
Yes, Republicans tend to be anti-choice and Democrats tend to be pro-choice. But Republicans and conservatives have long supported Planned Parenthood’s retrieval of tissue from legally aborted fetuses. They also support allowing Planned Parenthood to be reimbursed for the costs related to the retrieval. But recent coverage of video “stings” — operations by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress — leave a very different impression.
Fetal tissue research is legal in all but a handful of states, and it has been conducted in the United States, with federal support, for decades, except for a brief moratorium on the use of National Institutes of Health funds in the 1980s. It is regulated by federal law, and was funded by the Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama administrations, most recently to the tune of about $76 million per year.
Support for this research has been bipartisan. And individuals who are both anti-choice and pro-choice have benefited. Indeed, almost every American has benefited, in the form of vaccines for polio, chicken pox and German measles; and research toward treatments for blindness and furthering our understanding of cancer cells. It may shock our sensibilities to hear about fetal “remains” being treated as medical products — GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign was called out in 2012 when Mother Jones reported that he had a business connection with a company called Stericycle that disposed of fetal remains as “medical waste.” Equally disconcerting may be the language used routinely every day to “harvest” (as opposed to “recover”) the hearts and bones from “cadavers” (not “donors” or “the deceased”).
But multiple federal advisory commissions have found fetal tissue research ethically acceptable. The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was asked to study fetal research and in 1975 issued a report, Research on the Fetus, that concluded that the practice was ethically permissible. Despite this, the practice has been caught up in the abortion debate. Unlike our use of organs from deceased adults, opponents have claimed that using fetal remains for medical research makes funders and users “complicit” in the underlying abortion.
In the 1980s, while research proceeded in other countries to treat Parkinson’s disease, the Reagan administration rejected a request for NIH support, thus beginning a moratorium on federal funding. President Reagan created a Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel to review the research. It concluded that use of the tissue did not encourage ambivalent women to choose abortion, and the panel distinguished the moral analysis of abortion from the moral analysis of using remains for research. Like the earlier advisory committee, this panel found the research to be ethically permissible, provided that the decision to have an abortion was separated from the decision to donate the remains, and that tissue recovery did not affect the safety of the procedure for the woman.
This should have re-started the funding, and Reagan’s own secretary of health and human services later said he favored lifting the moratorium in light of this analysis. But it wasn’t lifted by Reagan or his successor, President George H.W. Bush.
Patients and medical societies fought back, and their efforts led to provisions in the NIH Revitalization Act that specifically authorized federal funding for fetal tissue research. In 1992, the Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming 85-to-12 vote — with 30 GOP votes — and the House passed it 260 to 148 — with 43 GOP votes.
Republican supporters of the bill recognized the difference between opposition to abortion rights and opposition to research using fetal tissue. Sen. John McCain reportedly wrote, “My abhorrence for the practice of abortion is unquestionable. Yet my abhorrence” for Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes “and the suffering they cause is just as strong.”
In the ’90s, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted to lift the moratorium, but he now decries fetal tissue research, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) was so supportive in 1992 that he reportedly attempted to talk Bush out of vetoing the bill. Though Upton was unsuccessful, President Bill Clinton removed obstacles to funding upon taking office, and Congress followed suit with legislation that set the conditions in force today.
Fetal tissue research was being federally regulated and funded when, in 2001, President George W. Bush announced a dramatic narrowing of support for embryonic stem cell research, citing reluctance to approve in any way the underlying decision to discard embryos. But he didn’t similarly narrow or halt funding for fetal tissue research, despite arguments similar to those made by opponents in the ’80s. Instead, he continued the policy of funding research and reimbursing costs for the procurement of fetal tissue.
The policy, still in effect, was adopted because fetal tissue offers distinct medical value because of its stage of development. That’s why Europeans recently started a major initiative involving fetal cell-based treatments to combat Parkinson’s.
Patients suffering from these diseases come from every part of the political spectrum, representing both supporters and opponents of abortion rights. It was their strenuous advocacy that persuaded legislators and presidents of both parties to restore and preserve federal funding. Congress, and the current presidential candidates, would be well advised to keep that in mind.