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 HuffmanOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Latest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say | House-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction | Interior sends 100K pages of documents to House House-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA rule extends life of toxic coal ash ponds | Flint class action suit against Mich. officials can proceed, court rules | Senate Democrats introduce environmental justice bill MORE (Calif.), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyDemocrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Democrats introduce bill to repeal funding ban on abortions abroad Trade negotiations mustn't short-circuit domestic debate MORE (Ill.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteDiabetes Caucus co-chairs say telehealth expansion to continue beyond pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin previews GOP coronavirus relief package The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump-the-briefer struggles with COVID-19 facts 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 John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE’s administration."