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NIH lifts Trump-era restrictions on fetal tissue research

Development comes after 26 House Democrats wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting changes to the policy

While serving as California’s attorney general last year, Becerra led a multistate coalition opposing restrictions on fetal tissue research.
While serving as California’s attorney general last year, Becerra led a multistate coalition opposing restrictions on fetal tissue research. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The National Institutes of Health on Friday announced it would loosen restrictions on using fetal tissue in biomedical research and revert to the process in place before 2019.

The change was issued in a notice Friday afternoon.

Fetal tissue research has been the subject of controversy because some advocates oppose using fetal tissue derived from abortions. Groups like the Charlotte Lozier Institute have pushed for expanding research into alternative methods.

NIH, in a statement to CQ Roll Call, said research applications using fetal tissue would no longer be required to be reviewed by an ethics advisory board at NIH. 

“NIH reminds the research community of expectations, regulations, and applicable laws for the conduct of research using HFT, including those to obtain informed consent from the donor of such tissue and those that prohibit profiting from such tissue,” said the agency in a statement, using the acronym for human fetal tissue.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra previewed the announcement while testifying before the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Thursday.

“We believe we have to do the research that it takes to make sure that we are incorporating innovation and getting all of those types of treatments and therapies out there to the American people,” Beccera said. 

The development also comes after 26 House Democrats wrote to Becerra earlier this week requesting changes to the policy.

“The previous administration’s restrictions on fetal tissue research continue to threaten scientific and medical advances by blocking intramural researchers from using the material and discouraging extramural researchers from pursuing research with it,” the members wrote. “The Trump administration’s policy was politically motivated and unnecessary.”

Tensions over the morality of the use of fetal tissue for research have escalated since 2018.

In September of 2018, a coalition of anti-abortion advocates wrote to HHS calling for an end to federally funded fetal tissue research. Later that month, HHS announced it had ended a contract between Advanced Bioscience Resources and the Food and Drug Administration to supply fetal tissue for research. 

The Trump administration took multiple actions related to fetal tissue, including establishing the ethics advisory board and blocking scientists at NIH from obtaining new fetal tissue derived from abortions for research purposes.

Last year, Becerra, who was California attorney general, led a multistate coalition opposing the restrictions.

“This effort is misguided, and is particularly troubling during a pandemic which fetal tissue research to develop potential treatments and therapies to help combat COVID-19,” the attorneys general wrote.

The NIH news was met with mixed reactions.

Democratic Reps. Suzan DelBene of Washington, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois applauded it.

“During a time when our country necessitates recovery that prioritizes science over politics, this is an integral step towards protecting the advancements of our scientific community,” they said in a joint statement.

Conservative researchers like Tara Sander Lee, senior fellow and director of life sciences at Charlotte Lozier Institute, said this was a move in the wrong direction.

“There are superior and ethical alternatives available such as adult stem cell models being used by countless scientists worldwide to develop and produce advanced medicines treating patients now, without exploitation of any innocent life,” she said. “All scientists should reject the administration’s attempts to prey on fears related to the pandemic to advance the practice of harvesting fetal tissue.”

But some liberal advocates have also pointed to former President Donald Trump’s support and use of Regeneron COVID-19 antibody treatment last year — which was developed with the use of cell lines that were originally derived from decades-old fetal tissue — as hypocritical.

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