NIH change on fetal tissue research denounced

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By: Tom Strode

Baptist Press

WASHINGTON (BP) – Pro-life advocates decried the Biden administration’s decision to rescind policies that restricted research using human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced April 16 it would no longer maintain a Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board to review proposals for external experiments, such as at universities, using tissue from elective abortions. The board also recommended whether the entity should provide funding. In 2020, the advisory panel rejected 13 of 14 applications in the only meeting it held.

The NIH also overturned a ban on research within institute laboratories that requires the new purchase of fetal tissue from elective abortions. Although NIH did not announce the repeal of the ban in its April 16 notice, the institute confirmed to Baptist Press by email the internal research program “may resume new acquisition and use of human fetal tissue, but must still follow NIH policy and State and Federal law.”

The actions reversed policies instituted by the Trump administration in 2019 that also included the funding of efforts to develop and certify alternatives to the use of human tissue from elective abortions in federally supported research.

“This was the wrong decision,” Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore said in written comments about the latest NIH policy. “We ought to have respect both for the sanctity of human life and also for the reverence we owe the bodies of the dead.

“We have seen time and time again that scientific research of the most cutting-edge kind can happen without any sacrifice of medical ethics or human dignity,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This sort of research should be banned. Human life and human bodies are not means to an end.”

David Prentice, vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told BP the NIH has “definitely just thrown ethics out the door.”

Regarding the replacement of the ethics advisory panel with in-house review by NIH, Prentice said in a phone interview, “It’s going to be literally the foxes reviewing the hens with no ethics involved. And so we’re turning back to a point of poor ethics and poor science.”

Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, condemned the new NIH policy, describing it as a “sickening decision.” She said in a written release, “Tiny human babies are aborted by abortionists and then exploited to be farmed for their organs and tissue for use in experiments.”

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the largest professional organization of stem cell researchers, welcomed what it called “the return to evidence-based policymaking.” Fetal tissue “was critical for the development of vaccines” for such diseases as polio and measles and “remains essential” in establishing models of the human immune system for studying viruses, ISSCR said in a written statement.

ISSCR’s comments on fetal tissue are misleading, Prentice told BP.

“Fetal tissue has never been used to make any vaccines. … It’s never been used to produce or manufacture any kind of medicines,” he said. “What has happened is in the past there have been some cell lines that were derived from an abortion decades ago. Those cells have been grown in the lab for decades. … But it’s not fetal tissue.”

Prentice said the “only successful treatments [have] come from ethically derived sources,” such as adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be converted into nearly the same properties as embryonic cells.

Fetal tissue experimentation is “unethical research that’s trafficking in baby body parts for unproductive, really antiquated scientific research,” said Prentice, who served on the NIH ethics advisory board last year.

NIH said the ethics advisory panel was disbanded because Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and an abortion rights advocate, “determined there are no new ethical issues that require special review.” NIH is a part of HHS.

Funding for research on tissue from aborted babies has been a federal battleground for more than 30 years. A ban on federal funding of such research existed from 1988 to 1993, when President Clinton struck it down two days after he took office. The fight over federal funding has occurred at different points since then, while private funding of fetal tissue research is permitted.

The announcement is the latest in a series of actions by the Biden administration that have reversed pro-life policies under President Trump. These include:

  • A Jan. 28 memorandum from Biden that revoked what is commonly known as the Mexico City Policy, which bars organizations from receiving federal funds unless they agree not to perform or promote abortions internationally.
  • A directive in the same memorandum to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to restore funds for the United Nations Population Fund, which has been linked to support of a Chinese population-control program that includes forced abortions and sterilizations.
  • An April 12 announcement by the Food and Drug Administration that it would not enforce during the COVID-19 pandemic a requirement that a woman must appear in person to receive mifepristone, the first drug in a two-step process known as medical or chemical abortion.
  • A proposed regulation issued April 15 by the Department of Health and Human Services that would rescind a rule prohibiting the use of money from the federal government’s Title X family planning program “to perform, promote, refer for, or support abortion as a method of family planning.”

This article was written by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. It was originally published at baptistpress.com.

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