No investigation of fetal tissue research is complete without full consideration of why this research is important and how scientists use fetal tissue to understand maternal and fetal health conditions, develop vaccines, and seek treatment for a host of conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, macular degeneration (the most common cause of blindness in adults), cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries.
Lead Researchers Confirm Need for Fetal Tissue Research:
The use of fetal tissue in medical research has been an instrumental component of our attempts to understand, prevent, and treat a number of conditions and diseases that affect millions of Americans .... [F]etal tissue is an important resource for researchers studying retinal degeneration, pregnancy loss, human development disorders such as Down Syndrome, and early brain development. Fetal tissue has also served as a critical resource for the development of models of human disease, such as HIV/AIDS, which has devastating effects on the human immune system. Importantly, cell lines derived from fetal tissue have also played an essential role in the creation of new vaccines and remain valuable in important efforts such as the pursuit of a vaccine for Ebola.
Today, the study and use of fetal tissue in medical research gives hope to millions of people and their families affected by a range of diseases and conditions. Fetal tissue is being used to develop treatments for many conditions, including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, organ failure, and spinal cord injuries. It is also used to better understand and prevent maternal and fetal health conditions.
From therapies for end-stage breast cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease to a promising vaccine for Ebola, vital medical research depends on continued use of fetal tissue under current laws and regulations. Fetal tissue continues to be an important resource for biomedical research.
Fetal tissue can help researchers replicate human systems that cannot otherwise be replicated. This type of research has helped improve our understanding of numerous health issues including early brain development, neurocognitive disorders, congenital heart defects, Down syndrome, and other infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and influenza.
Fetal tissue research has been credited for propelling scientific understanding of diseases such as polio, hepatitis A and measles. Given what we know thus far about exposure to the Zika virus during pregnancy and the potential link to birth defects, fetal tissue research may play a fundamental role in the development of a vaccine.
Cells derived from fetal tissue are also less likely to be rejected by the body, making them viable candidates for transplantation. Researchers are currently exploring transplantation of fetal tissues and cells to treat and cure devastating conditions like Parkinson’s disease, juvenile (type1) diabetes, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Scientists who work with fetal tissue – many of whom are hesitant to be cited due to safety concerns – state that fetal tissue is unique and useful because it can offer information that other types of research, such as research using animal or adult tissue, do not always provide. Studies on animals may be predictive of results in humans, but not always. Fetal tissue is specific to early human development and may provide a level of assurance that may not be found solely utilizing adult or animal tissue.
Virtually Every Single American Has Benefited From Fetal Tissue Research
Fetal tissue has been instrumental in the development of vaccines for the following diseases: Measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, polio, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, shingles, and adenovirus infections. Millions of lives have been saved as a result of this research.
Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue. Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us (and give even the unvaccinated the benefit of herd immunity)
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that between 1994 and 2013, these childhood vaccines have prevented:
732,000 premature child deaths
$1,380,000,000 dollars saved
These vaccines have saved society an estimated $1.38 trillion dollars since 1994.
Without this research, hundreds of millions of people would have been subjected to these diseases and over a trillion dollars would have been spent.
Millions More Americans Could be Helped by Ongoing Fetal Tissue Research
Currently, fetal tissue is being used in the development and testing of vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDs, influenza, dengue fever, and hepatitis B and C. It is being used to understand how the Zika virus impacts fetal development and remains vital for research into viruses that infect only human cells and in particular only human brain cells. It serves a critical role in this area of scientific study because alternative methods of studying these viruses in the lab do not currently exist. Transplantation of neural stem cells derived from fetal tissues is currently being tested as therapy for neurodegenerative diseases that do not have any other effective therapies.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Clinical trials transplanting fetal derived neural stem cells are ongoing for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease.
Several Parkinson’s patients in the U.S. and abroad are reported to be off medication and symptom free as a result of treatment breakthroughs. The transplantation of fetal cells into the brains of Parkinson’s patients has allowed some patients to regain speech, speed of movement, and quality of life.
An estimated one million Americans are currently living with Parkinson's.
Before they were against it, many Republicans supported fetal tissue research
There has been a long history of strong bipartisan support in Congress for fetal tissue research.
The 1988 Reagan-appointed National Institute of Health (NIH) Panel on Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research overwhelmingly voted to permit federal funding for fetal tissue research, and found that the use of fetal tissue was both ethical and that this research should proceed.
Leading Republicans previously supported – and advocated passionately – for fetal tissue research:
“To support this research is a true pro-life position”
“It is about saving and improving lives”
“This bill is neither pro-choice nor pro-life. It is pro-science. … [R]esearch that gives hope to millions of Americans with potentially curable diseases.”
The NIH Revitalization Act, which specifically authorized federal funding for fetal tissue research passed the Senate by an overwhelming 93 to 4 vote, with 37 Republican votes. The House passed it 290 to 130, with 59 Republican votes.
Now, Republican Attacks are Putting this Research — and Researchers — at Risk
Despite no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood or other reproductive health care providers, Republicans continue to pursue these baseless and inflammatory allegations at great harm to fetal tissue research. As a result, some providers have stopped their donation programs, leaving researchers without resources needed to continue their potentially life-saving research. Under pressure from Republican lawmakers, academic institutions have halted vital research programs and many now face the possibility of legislative bans on their work.
Ms. DelBene: And do you think the political climate can have a chilling effect on scientific research going forward if that continues?
Mr. Goldstein: It is already having it.
Ms. DelBene: It is already having it. In what way are you seeing that today?
Mr. Goldstein: So, there is another project that I am involved with that is basically seeing a supply of fetal material dry up completely and it was a very promising therapy for MS.
"Some medical studies have been delayed or canceled because researchers can no longer acquire fetal tissue samples from their usual suppliers, who have grown concerned about the investigation, researchers said. Larry Goldstein, scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in San Diego, told the committee at its first hearing on March 2 that a project to cure multiple sclerosis had been halted because it had “basically seen supply of fetal material dry up completely. Colorado State University suspended its acquisition of fetal tissue from “vendors implicated in the Planned Parenthood investigation pending the outcome of the congressional inquiry,” the university said in a letter to Congress in July. ”
“Scientists say such laws in states like Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Indiana — along with an escalating probe of fetal tissue research by House Republicans — are becoming roadblocks to the research needed to combat Zika. But the reaction has been muted because scientists fear the wrath of anti-abortion activists, even though many say the research is urgent to find the answers that could save children from birth defects or death.”
Republican Database Puts Researchers at Risk:
Republicans are using congressional authority to amass a database of names of anyone involved in fetal tissue research or reproductive health care. Democrats have objected repeatedly to Republican Chair Blackburn’s abusive and unjustifiable use of unilateral subpoena authority to force health care providers, academic institutions, and medical schools to turn over the names of doctors, medical and graduate students, and clinic personnel. These sweeping demands jeopardize individual privacy and safety and serve no legitimate congressional purpose.
Democrats have asked Chair Blackburn to stop demanding this information and to explain why she needs it. She has refused:
“Madam Chair, will you explain how the names of individual medical or graduate students, researchers, health care providers, and clinic personnel are pertinent to this investigation?”
“No, sir, I am not going to do that.”
Beyond putting research at risk, Republican demands for names endangers researchers and students:
“It’s one step further than McCarthyism, because McCarthy just threatened people’s jobs. They’re threatening people’s lives.”
There is no legitimate need for the names of researchers, students, clinic personnel and doctors; and amassing a database that could be released publicly at any time is a threat to anyone whose name might be on that list. We live in a world where women have to face a gauntlet of harassment to get to their doctors and where websites list the names and addresses of physicians who perform abortions – some with maps and directions to their homes. Even medical researchers who seek treatments and cures using fetal tissue are targets; and some have abandoned their research as a result.
Following the Panel’s March 2 hearing, the world’s largest general scientific society raised concerns about the demand for names.
“[W]e at AAAS are troubled by the practice of issuing subpoenas that would risk making public the names of researchers, students and others involved in fetal tissue research. Fetal tissue research is legal and governed by strict ethical guidelines. Unfortunately, releasing the names of researchers is not just an issue of privacy, but safety.”
Associations representing the nation’s medical schools, public and private research universities, and stat university systems have also objected:
Initial requests sent to our member institutions failed to articulate why information that identified individuals was being requested and how the Panel intended to use this information. . . . Many scientists and physicians are deeply concerned for their safety and that of their patients, colleagues, and students in light of inflammatory statements and reports surrounding fetal tissue donation.