After years of attacks from abortion opponents, scientists who conduct foetal-tissue research tend to keep a low profile. When the journal Nature contacted 18 such researchers for an article on “The Truth About Fetal Tissue Research,” only two agreed to speak.
That’s a shame because their research has saved countless lives and could save countless more. Most people who’ve benefited simply don’t know it. Last week the Trump administration moved to restrict this vital research. It’s more important than ever that advocates explain loudly and clearly why it matters.
Foetal-tissue research sounds cutting-edge, but in fact, the U.S. government has been funding it since the 1950s. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for such research; it helped lay the groundwork for mass polio vaccination. Vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis A, rabies, rubella and shingles were also developed using foetal-tissue research. It’s no exaggeration to say hundreds of millions of people have benefited from vaccines derived from foetal tissue.
More recently, scientists have used foetal-tissue research to make drugs safer and study eye and brain development. It has been crucial to HIV researchers, who among other things have used it to develop a drug, Truvada, which prevents the virus from spreading. In 2014, nearly 40% of all federal funds for such research were used for work on HIV.
The administration has announced that government scientists will no longer conduct foetal-tissue research and that scientists supported by federal funds will face extra scrutiny and require case-by-case approval. In an indication of what that might mean, the administration simultaneously said it was cancelling a project on HIV treatments based at the University of California at San Francisco that had been federally supported for three decades.
The director of the NIH has stressed the scientific value of foetal-tissue research. Some 70 medical organizations and universities submitted a letter to the government arguing that “foetal tissue research cannot be replaced with existing alternative research models” and that restricting it would be “devastating to patients.” The work has authoritative defenders, to be sure – but too few, and their case isn’t getting through to the public as well as it should be.
Their argument could hardly be stronger. Opponents of such research doubtless value life-saving vaccines and better treatments for disease: They want to stop the work because they object to abortion. Yet stopping foetal-tissue research would do nothing to reduce abortions, which number in the hundreds of thousands annually for reasons that have nothing to do with biomedical research. Blocking this research will hold back medical science, at great cost to human well-being, for no intelligible purpose.
In pressing this case, advocates need to be as assertive and persistent as their opponents – and when they speak up, they need allies to rally opinion to their side.