Anti-abortion groups in standoff with Trump over fetal tissue research

The Trump administration and its anti-abortion allies have found themselves in a rare feud.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is facing pressure from leading anti-abortion groups to cancel more than $100 million in federal funding for research projects that use fetal tissue.

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HHS is soliciting feedback from scientists, anti-abortion groups and other stakeholders as it reviews programs that use fetal tissue before making a decision on whether to nix funding.

Anti-abortion groups say the decision should be easy: Eliminate all fetal-tissue funding.

“It shows a very hypocritical, and in my view, anti-science view to continue funding it,” said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for March for Life.

He said the funding decision “unfortunately overshadows some of the good stuff this administration is doing. One would hope they’d be consistent with their pro-life message.”

The hard-line stance of anti-abortion groups is putting political officials at HHS in a tough spot as the agency tries to balance the desires of career officials and leaders who support the research and the demands of some of the president’s strongest allies who helped get him elected.

“It is certainly important to recognize that there are many more career employees at HHS and the [Food and Drug Administration] and throughout the administration who are committed to their work,” said Megan Donovan, a senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research and policy group in Washington.

“Unfortunately, the reality is there are political appointees in positions of power who are able to steer the administration’s work away from good public policy making and sacrifice public policies in the name of political gain,” she added.

Anti-abortion groups and some congressional Republicans have long urged Trump to replace National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, who is seen as unfriendly to anti-abortion groups. Collins was first nominated by former President Obama and then renominated by Trump last year.

NIH spent $103 million on fetal tissue in fiscal 2018 and expects to spend $95 million this year — a small part of its $37 billion budget.

“The problem has always been with the NIH and their director, Francis Collins,” McClusky said.

“[HHS] listens to the scientists on our side and seems to agree that there are ethical alternatives. However, main adviser is Francis Collins,” who “doesn’t strike me as someone who understands the ethical and moral balance,” he said.

Supporters of fetal tissue in research point to its use in developing the first polio and measles vaccines. They also note that its use is subject to stringent laws and ethics standards.

But anti-abortion advocates who oppose the use of fetal tissue for research say it is antiquated and there are more modern and ethical alternatives.

“Those funds shouldn’t be going to fetal tissue research,” said David Prentice, vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the national anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List.

“There are ample alternatives that can actually help patients,” he added, pointing to “life-affirming” options such as adult stem cells, after-birth tissue and cells from umbilical cords.

The use of fetal tissue for research purposes has long been a flash point in abortion politics.

But the issue resurfaced over the summer when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) renewed a $16,000 contract with a nonprofit organization to obtain fetal tissue from abortions.

“We expect far better of our federal agencies — especially under the leadership of a courageous pro-life president — entrusted with the health of American citizens,” the SBA List wrote in a September letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

HHS terminated the contract after hearing from anti-abortion groups and some congressional Republicans. The agency then announced a review of similar contracts.

That review is ongoing, and an HHS spokesperson did not provide a timeline for its completion.

But the agency invited four science groups to a listening session in Washington on Nov. 16.

“HHS is holding multiple listening sessions with various stakeholders, e.g. scientists, pro-life groups, ethicists, on this topic,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement.

Kevin Wilson, a spokesman for the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), one of the groups in attendance at the Nov. 16 meeting, said the conversation was “productive.”

“ASCB feels that fetal tissue is a critical component of improving biomedical research,” he said, while declining to go into specifics about the meeting because HHS asked that it be off the record.

“We are concerned about efforts to ban any type of biomedical research,” Wilson added. “We certainly hope that this will be the first, and not the only, meeting with HHS. We hope they will continue to work to craft a policy that will not adversely affect the American biomedical research field.”