Most Members of Federal Fetal Tissue Ethics Panel Oppose Abortion
Most Members of Federal Fetal Tissue Ethics Panel Oppose Abortion

Most Members of Federal Fetal Tissue Ethics Panel Oppose Abortion

The members of a new advisory board to the NIH met for the first time and will weigh in on federal funding for grants that rely on donated tissue from abortions.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Aug 3, 2020


Update (August 19): The panel has rejected 13 of the 14 proposals it has considered thus far, The Washington Post reports.

More than a year after the Department of Health and Human Services announced the creation of the National Institutes of Health Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board, members of the committee convened for the first time on Friday (July 31) to oversee the ethics of using fetal tissue in federally funded research. Of the 15 committee members, appointed by President Donald Trump, 10 have a history of activism against abortion or fetal tissue use. As Buzzfeed News reports, some researchers have voiced concerns that the panel could impair future research on HIV, diabetes, COVID-19 vaccines, and more.

The board’s purpose is to review research grant proposals that study human fetal tissue (HFT) and advise that they receive funding only if no adequate alternatives exist and that the acquisition and disposal of the material meet ethical guidelines. Their recommendations will be passed along to Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

HFT is used to study many diseases, including HIV, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and others. While the availability of HFT in biomedical research has waxed and waned over the years, the Trump administration announced last summer that there would be new restrictions on obtaining biological material from abortions.

The committee chair is Paige Comstock Cunningham, an attorney with a doctorate in educational studies, Science reports. Cunningham was the president of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion organization, and has testified before Congress against research using fetal tissues.

Nine other members of the board have also made public anti-abortion or anti-contraceptive stances in the form of op-eds, Congressional testimonies, and drafting or promoting legislation. These include four researchers, two pediatricians, an OB-GYN, an internist, and a professor of moral philosophy, according to Science. Three of them are connected professionally to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, which is “an organization dedicated to electing candidates and pursuing policies that will reduce and ultimately end abortion,” according to its website.

Four members of the board, a neonatologist and three researchers, have not opined publicly on the topic of fetal tissue research. 

See “Scientists Grapple with US Restrictions on Fetal Tissue Research

The final appointee is Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who uses fetal cells in Alzheimer’s research and has publicly opposed undue restrictions on their use.

“The fetal tissue that we’re talking about—if we don’t use it for research, it will be discarded,” Goldstein told The Scientist earlier this year. “That’s the choice. Discard the fetal tissue in the trash, or use it for valuable research.”

The agenda for the first meeting involved 40 minutes of introductions and establishing procedures, 20 minutes of public comments, and five hours of closed-door discussions.

The long wait between the advisory board’s announcement and its actual creation has resulted in grant proposals growing stagnant, as the committee review became a requirement back on September 25, 2019. This has already prevented some studies from occurring, Buzzfeed News reports.

Clarification (August 4): The text has been updated to reflect that the Charlotte Lozier Institute is part of a larger organization, the Susan B. Anthony List.