The Trump administration said Wednesday it is ending medical research by government scientists that uses human fetal tissue, a victory for abortion opponents that comes despite impassioned pleas from scientists that some health problems can’t be studied any other way.
Research using fetal tissue that otherwise would be discarded has been funded by the United States government, under leadership of both political parties, for decades – and has led to life-saving advances including the development of vaccines for rubella and rabies, and drugs for the HIV virus.
Officials said government-sponsored research by universities will be allowed to continue, subject to additional scrutiny.
But ongoing research at the National Institutes of Health involving fetal tissue from elective abortion would not be allowed to proceed.
The policy change will not affect privately funded research that uses human fetal tissue.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement.
But ending its use is a priority for anti-abortion rights activists, a core element of President Donald Trump‘s political base. Trump casts himself as “strongly pro-life”, and his administration has taken many steps to restrict access to abortion, which remains a legal medical procedure. Trump has nominated federal judges who oppose abortion, attempted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and expanded legal protection for medical providers who object to abortion.
Critics argue that modern science has alternatives to replace fetal tissue in the laboratory, such as using tissue from infants who undergo heart surgery or stem cells that grow into organ-like clumps in lab dishes.
But leading scientific groups say there still are conditions where fetal tissue is the best, or even the only, option to get clear answers to some devastating disorders – because those substitutes don’t act the same as tissue from the exact developmental stage that needs to be studied.
Equality Forward, which describes itself as a watchdog project that promotes reproductive rights, slammed the administration’s decision, saying it puts millions of lives at risk.
“HHS Secretary Alex Azar is putting millions of dollars in lifesaving research at risk to please a small group of anti-abortion extremists,” Equality Forward senior adviser Mary Alice Carter said in a statement. “This decision will derail scientific advancements that could lead to cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and HIV.”