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House Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research

House Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research
© Greg Nash

More than a dozen House Democrats on Monday called on the Trump administration to lift restrictions on research that uses human fetal tissue to allow for studies on potential treatment for COVID-19.

The lawmakers argued in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that such studies could lead to developing coronavirus treatments more quickly. Public health officials have estimated that a vaccine will not be available for at least another 12 to 18 months.

"Because of your restrictions, NIH is unable to utilize human fetal tissue to develop animal models of COVID-19 that can test potential vaccines and treatments to decelerate or even end this global health crisis. This inaction may ultimately put Americans further at risk of disease or death from COVID-19," the Democrats, led by Reps. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanSafe and ethical seafood on the menu this Congress Modernizing transportation can help tackle the climate crisis Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' MORE (Calif.), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyOnline school raises new concerns about cyberbullying Progressives nearly tank House Democrats' Capitol security bill Battle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers MORE (Ill.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteNick Offerman testifies before Congress on vaccines: 'Medicine doesn't care who you voted for' Democrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act Regulator: Evidence suggests Texas 'absolutely' didn't follow recommendations to winterize power equipment MORE (Colo.), wrote.

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"Instead of exploring every possible option for a COVID-19 therapeutic, U.S. scientists are now urging their international counterparts to rush to conduct this research while their hands remain tied," they wrote, along with 10 other fellow House Democrats.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year moved to discontinue research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that used aborted fetal tissue. The policy allowed existing projects funded by NIH grants at outside entities like universities to continue until their funding expired, but said those entities would have to go through an ethics advisory board for future approval.

At least one scientist at an NIH laboratory has been unable to pursue research for a potential coronavirus treatment due to the ban on fetal tissue, according to The Washington Post. A Montana facility has been prevented from conducting experiments using mice that can be transplanted with human fetal tissue that develops into lungs, which could then be infected with coronaviruses. Mice are ordinarily not prone to contracting such viruses. 

Fetal tissue is donated by women who undergo abortions. Scientists say that the fetal tissue has been critical in decades of research that has led to developments like the polio vaccine. 

But abortion opponents argue that using the tissue is unethical and have long lobbied for preventing taxpayer funds to go toward research that uses the material.  

The Department of Health and Human Services said in its announcement last year about the new policy that "promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President TrumpDonald TrumpChinese apps could face subpoenas, bans under Biden executive order: report Kim says North Korea needs to be 'prepared' for 'confrontation' with US Ex-Colorado GOP chair accused of stealing more than 0K from pro-Trump PAC MORE’s administration."