Limiting Scientific Research is Another Front in the War on Abortion

reproductive freedom, human fetal tissue, HFT, abortion, trump, hhs, health and human services, alex azar
In June 2018, on the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, feminists gathered at the Virginia state Capitol to demand full reproductive justice for all women. (Erin Edgerton / VCU Capital News Service)

The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg puts reproductive rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade in grave jeopardy. As part of its war on abortion, the Trump administration has banned scientists from using human fetal tissue (HFT) donated from terminated pregnancies in medical research.

The ban on HFT research is not only another attack on reproductive freedoms; it is limiting crucial medical advances, putting lives in danger and demonstrating the vast collateral damage unleashed by the war on abortion. Reproductive rights advocates must seize upon this dangerous politicization of medical research to forge new allies and further broaden advocacy coalitions.

The ban on HFT research resulted from the fifteen-member Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board—which was established this year by Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and long-time abortion foe Paige Comstock Cunningham. The ban was announced despite the fact that the National Institutes of Health had already approved the use of HFT in government-funded scientific research.

reproductive freedom, human fetal tissue, HFT, abortion, trump, hhs, health and human services, alex azar
Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar takes questions from the press on March 6 at the White House. (White House Photo / Tia Dufour)

This crucial research—which relies on HFT from involuntarily-terminated pregnancies (e.g. a miscarriage) as well as elective abortions—could lead to the development of a vaccine to combat COVID-19 as well as treatments for cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Thus, curtailing it is detrimental to everyone. 

Convened for the first time in July, the board is dominated by white Christian anti-abortion advocates, including five affiliated with a prominent anti-abortion think tank, the Charlotte Lozier Institute. This violates a federal law requiring membership balance on advisory committees.

Not surprisingly, the board review process, conducted behind closed doors, rejected 13 out of 14 proposals by a vast majority. Abortion is mentioned 25 times, with members expressing reservations about some research as being “too interwoven with abortion” and dismissing the validity of a woman’s informed consent “given the vulnerability inherently present within that context.”  

In an unusual move, the board’s final report to Secretary Azar detailing its decisions includes a strongly-worded dissent from two unnamed members of the board accusing the board of being constituted with bias to block rather than fairly review proposals.

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A History of Medical Research Driven by Ideology

The establishment of the board follows the Trump administration’s decision last year to end scientific research at the National Institutes of Health that relies on HFT and to terminate outside research contracts using HFT. This ideologically-driven politicization of medical research compromises the development of life-saving vaccines, treatments and cures—a perversion for a group that labels itself “pro-life” and a troubling development during a global pandemic. 

In fact, the ethics of HFT research was already debated by a 21-member advisory panel convened by President Reagan in 1988. After a thorough review, this more-balanced board concluded that research using HFT was ethical and acceptable public policy. 

The medical community has sounded the alarm. The International Society for Stem Cell Research called the board’s near total ban “disheartening” and lamented the influence of ideology and special interests on the evaluation process. The American Association of Medical Colleges, joined by 70 other health organization, highlighted the “unique and valuable properties” of HFT and called for all evaluations of publicly-funded medical research to be insulated from politics.

Reproductive rights advocates must ally with the medical community to fight against HFT restrictions—which is at its heart an extension of the Trump administration’s campaign to eliminate abortions. By adding their voices, they will be following the advice of Justice Ginsburg, seeking change one step at a time.

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Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.