December 8, 2021

Scientists lament Trump Administration’s ban on foetal tissue research

Others say that numerous non-controversial alternatives exist

The outcome of this year’s American elections is of great interest to medical scientists who work with foetal tissue. The Trump Administration has tightened the screws on their work, banning government labs from using foetal tissue obtained from elective abortions and restricting funding for non-government scientists.

Some scientists are outraged. “Those who imposed the ban must bear responsibility for the consequences: People will suffer and die for lack of adequate treatments,” wrote Irving Weissman, of Stanford University, and Joseph McCune, of the University of California, San Francisco in an furious op-ed in USA Today. “To the extent that it was motivated by the religious beliefs of those in charge, it bluntly transgresses the American principle of separation of church and state. As a result, both believers and non-believers will die. Of course, all who take the Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm,’ which includes all medical doctors, will always offer and deliver all types of therapies that are available.”

Scientists who support foetal tissue research complain that valuable opportunities for research are being wasted. “The fetal tissue that we’re talking about—if we don’t use it for research, it will be discarded. That’s the choice. Discard the fetal tissue in the in the trash, or use it for valuable research,” says Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

They argue that tissue from abortions is ideal for their work. There are major limitations with tissue from miscarriages, for instance. Supply is limited and factors which caused the miscarriage may make the tissue unsuitable for experiments. Because they happen unexpectedly, the tissue is not always intact. “We would worry about using poor quality tissue as a foundation for the work we do,” says Anita Bhattacharyya, a stem cell scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Summing up their complaints, Mana Parast, of the University of California, San Diego, tells The Scientist, “It makes no sense to limit this research,” given that the tissue from abortions will get discarded now that donation is not an option. We’re not talking about encouraging this procedure—we’re trying to use the material from patients who have already decided to undergo this procedure in order to be able to help other women.”

However, on the other side of this bitter debate are a number of scientists who believe that foetal tissue is far from indispensable. Several scholars from the Charlotte Lozier Institute responded that the USA Today op-ed read “more like science fiction and definitely misrepresent[ed] the facts.” They claim that:

Numerous non-controversial alternatives exist for research that does not rely on abortions. Some of these alternatives are available now and sufficient for many research studies, including humanized mice made with stem cells from cord blood and free from ethical controversy. Others are still in development. Transitioning to ethical alternatives takes time and money. This is why the NIH has dedicated $20 million dollars in additional resources for exploring and developing alternatives to human fetal tissue from elective abortions. 

The new policies are based on not only the best science, but also the best ethics. This is incredibly important, because it ensures that research continues on an upward path that does not rely on exploiting other human beings and their body parts. The ethical way is the only way to ensure that everyone will have access to all treatments.

Michael Cook is the editor of BioEdge

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