Republicans' Obsession With Fetal Tissue Could Sabotage HIV and Cancer Research

Pictured: Rep. Mark Meadows, Republican from North Carolina
Image: AP

The Republican Party’s obsession with abortion and general contempt for science continued on Thursday as House conservatives pushed against government-funded research that involves fetal tissue.

The Washington Post reports that a hearing before the subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “grew testy” during a debate over whether cells from fetal tissue are as useful as cells from non-fetal tissue at advancing potential cures and treatment options for HIV and cancer as well as vaccines:

“We do not need fetal body parts from aborted babies,” said biochemist Tara Sander Lee, an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List. “We never needed fetal tissue to begin with.”

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This is curious claim, considering the fact that fetal tissue has been used for nearly a century in vaccines fighting polio, chicken pox, shingles, rubella, and more, saving countless lives. Even the Catholic Church ultimately believes that parents can vaccinate their children with vaccines made from fetal tissue, ultimately concluding that the benefits outweigh the moral quandary of the vaccine’s origins.

The Democrats’ sole witness—neuroscientist and former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Sally Temple—told the committee, adult stem cells “may be useful at times but cannot fully replace fetal tissues.”

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Republicans don’t care:

Presiding over the hearing, [Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)], the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, repeatedly goaded Temple, asking at one point, “Why would there be a difference in charge for baby parts in the first trimester versus baby parts in the second trimester?”

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When the Republicans weren’t using inflammatory language to get their conservative base all riled up, they were misrepresenting scientific data (bolding mine):

The other Republican witness, David Prentice, the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s vice president and a cell biologist, lauded a recent paper by a University of Wisconsin postdoctoral student, which Prentice said demonstrated that discarded tissue from newborns who have had heart surgery worked as well as fetal tissue. The student, Matthew Brown, dispatched a letter to the committee Thursday, saying such claims misinterpreted and stretched his findings.

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According to Rewire News’ reporting of the hearing, Temple, the Democrats’ witness, acknowledged that there should be alternatives to fetal tissues, but “cautioned against heavy-handed government intervention on the issue”:

“The consensus opinion is those alternatives are not sufficient,” Temple said. “The critical thing is it will not substitute for every application and for every disease. But scientists will use alternatives where they are available. We see the value in it … Scientists will only use it if it’s essential, and if it’s important. You cannot misrepresent the science.”

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Earlier this month, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services denied reports that the future of a contract with the University of California at San Francisco—which is using fetal tissue to create therapies for AIDS and Parkinson’s disease—was in doubt. But HHS did cancel a small $16,000 contract in September with Advanced Bioscience Resources, a group that implanted fetal tissue into mice to test their immune system’s response to drugs. In a statement, HHS said that the department wasn’t satisfied that the group used “appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue” and used this as a launching point to introduce skepticism into all government funding of fetal tissue:

[...] HHS is now conducting an audit of all acquisitions involving human fetal tissue to ensure conformity with procurement and human fetal tissue research laws and regulations. HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved

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This, from the department that took a hard anti-abortion pivot under Trump, comes as no surprise.

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About the author

Ashley Reese

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.