The United States is the world leader in most areas of science and medicine, yet our current medical establishment is decades behind in its ineffective and immoral use of aborted fetal tissue for research. It is time for the federal government to stop funding this antiquated research, and for our leaders at the National Institutes of Health to stop using taxpayer dollars to propagate poor science and the gruesome trafficking of aborted baby body parts.
President Ronald Reagan rightly instituted a moratorium on federally funded fetal tissue research during his second term in office. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration ended the moratorium in 1993 as the hype grew over the possibility of using aborted fetal tissue transplants to cure diseases. This federal statute has remained virtually unchanged to the present day, allowing the secretary of health and human services to “conduct or support research on the transplantation of human fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes.”
However, the premise that fueled this policy reversal 26 years ago is scientifically dubious.
Controlled clinical trials with fetal tissue transplants have revealed results that were “tragic, catastrophic.” The NIH has not funded any fetal tissue trials in over a decade, but approximately $100 million of taxpayer money currently goes toward basic science experiments using aborted fetal tissue. That money would be vastly better spent on ethical research with considerably better chances of success, such as using adult stem cells which are obtained without destruction of the donor. Adult stem cells have become the gold standard for stem cell treatment, producing hundreds of documented benefits, and have been used to treat nearly 2 million patients.
Claims about lifesaving research from aborted fetal tissue rely on either ignorance of the science or willful deception. Proponents often claim that vaccines created in the past owe their existence to fetal tissue research, but the facts show that fresh aborted fetal tissue has never been used for vaccine production.
Even the historic fetal cell cultures from the 1960s used for some notable vaccines are no longer used for most vaccines today. Much of the polio vaccine is made using the Vero monkey cell line, and newer technologies make even the historic fetal cell lines obsolete. Additionally, the new Ebola vaccine (recently shown to be 97.5% effective) is produced using the Vero monkey cell line, and the recently approved shingles vaccine (Shingrix), which is produced in engineered hamster cells, also shows greater than 90% effectiveness while providing better protection than the historic vaccine produced in fetal cells.
Another use of freshly aborted fetal organs is creating “humanized mice,” which are mice that are constructed to have a human immune system, to test drugs and antibodies. To create these humanized mice, NIH grants are doled out to programs like that of the University of California, San Francisco. This project uses 17-24-weeks-old (mid-late gestation) aborted fetal organs to manufacture humanized mice for studies.
The gruesome harvest of aborted fetal organs for this type of research is unnecessary. Similar humanized mice can be constructed by using postnatally sourced cells and tissues, without killing the fetus to harvest its tissue. Numerous scientifically validated examples exist, but just one involves use of blood stem cells from the umbilical cord and neonatal tissue removed during surgeries. The postnatal tissue is 50 times more efficient in constructing humanized mice. The human immune systems created in this type of humanized mice are more clinically relevant and biologically precise than the former, and thus are much more useful for safety studies.
It is also inaccurate to say that alternatives to aborted fetal organs, such as aborted fetal brains, do not exist for the study of development and diseases. In fact, organoids that are constructed using modern stem cell techniques were instrumental in deciphering both normal brain development and the mechanism of Zika virus action on the developing brain. The evidence documented in congressional testimony shows numerous alternatives to aborted fetal tissue.
The use of aborted fetal organs and body parts in research has continued for decades even as the scientific basis for this research has been proven weak, at best. It is time for modern science to once again establish both a biologically and morally sound foundation in research.
In 2016, the state of Indiana passed a law to prohibit the trafficking and research of aborted fetal organs and tissue, like laws passed in over a dozen other states. While temporarily blocked by judicial action, the Indiana law should soon go into effect. The federal government would do well to follow Indiana’s lead by turning away from fetal tissue research and redirecting taxpayer dollars to patient-focused research.
This is the path to global leadership on medical ethics; let’s boldly follow it.