Fetal-Tissue Research: Bioethicists Weigh in on Biden Administration’s Removal of Restrictions

Experts outline the costs of disregarding the ethical considerations of such research.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra listens as President Joe Biden speaks about the southern border during a meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House March 24 in Washington.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra listens as President Joe Biden speaks about the southern border during a meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House March 24 in Washington. (photo: Evan Vucci / AP)

WASHINGTON — Former members of the Trump-era National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board and a pro-life expert on the topic are speaking out against the Biden administration’s recent decision to remove the requirement that the board review human fetal-tissue research from elective abortions. 

In addition to highlighting the importance of ethical considerations, they also pointed out past ethical violations on the part of researchers that demonstrate the continuing need for such a review board.

The NIH said in its announcement, “because the HHS secretary has determined there are no new ethical issues that require special review, HHS is reversing its 2019 decision that all research applications for NIH grants and contracts proposing the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions be reviewed by an Ethics Advisory Board.” 

In its notice, NIH reminded the community of extramural researchers of “expectations to obtain informed consent from the donor for any NIH-funded research using human fetal tissue (NOT-OD-16-033) and of continued obligations to conduct such research only in accord with any applicable federal, state or local laws and regulations, including prohibitions on the payment of valuable consideration for such tissue.”


Ends Justifying the Means

Father Tad Pacholczyk, the director of education and staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, served on the fetal-tissue advisory board. He told the Register via email, “The decision to reinstate NIH support for research involving fetal tissue from abortions reveals a kind of moral vacuum in the world of scientific research.”

Father Pacholczyk, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Yale and worked as a molecular biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, said that Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s comment that “we have to do the research 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” implies “the ends justify the means.” Father Pacholczyk said that “while developing biomedical therapies is a laudable goal, equally important are the means, which should not involve evil and/or violent practices.” 

“I served on the Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board and participated in its deliberations,” he added. “The board acted with moral clarity and ethical resolve as it carried out its mandate. Very regrettably, the current administration is jettisoning serious ethical review to safeguard abortion and to assure the continued exploitation of vulnerable unborn Americans. Outside ethical review is essential. We are returning to a situation where the foxes control the henhouse.”


Factors Considered 

In July, the ethics board reviewed 14 proposals involving the use of human fetal tissue and voted to withhold funding from 13 of the proposals. According to the most recent available data from fiscal year 2019, there are approximately 144 total projects that use human fetal tissue and more than $100 million in NIH funding that goes toward these grants. 

Dr. Greg Burke, co-chairman of the Catholic Medical Association’s Ethics Committee, who was a member of the board, told the Register about some of the factors that were considered in reviewing these proposals. He said part of the review considered “from an ethical standpoint: Was the consent process appropriate? Did things line up well in terms of separating potentially conflicting interests? One of the things we were also concerned about: Were there alternatives to the use of aborted fetal tissue that had not been addressed or discussed?”

In the board’s report, the members outlined points the researchers were required to address, which included “why the research goals cannot be accomplished using an alternative to HFT (human fetal tissue)” and to “indicate the methods used to determine that no alternatives to HFT can be used” as well as to describe “plans for treatment of HFT and the disposal of HFT when research is complete” and “planned written, voluntary, informed consent process for cell/tissue donation, or description and documentation of process if cells/tissue were already obtained.” 

Burke said the board also discussed the “idea that if we use this tissue, a large percentage of the population is not going to be comfortable with that. ... However a particular researcher or scientist felt about abortion, they’d have to recognize that a large portion of the population would be uncomfortable knowing that the research that they’re benefitting from was done on aborted fetal tissue.” 


Problems With Consent

Burke also found it “very disturbing” that with respect to tissues harvested from aborted babies, “the same person who is consenting to the use of your tissue for research if you’re the fetus is the same person who consented to your demise.” 

“You should always be acting in the research subject’s best interests, whether it’s a child or an adult,” he said. “If they’re consenting to research, there’s certain protection for that research subject. In this case, it’s already a deceased human being, but isn’t it just ironic that as they’re giving consent to the research, they’ve also consented for that deceased fetus to be in the deceased state.”

He said, “It’s disappointing that the current administration doesn’t realize the moral gravity of the dignity of human life and of even the tissue that is now deceased, that it still has great value, and we can never separate the research from how it got to that point.”

Tara Sander Lee, senior fellow and director of life sciences at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told the Register that it was “very important” to require researchers “to describe in very detailed fashion how they are going to obtain these tissues and provide a description and documentation of the process with which they obtained this tissue, which included informed consent.” This is necessary because “they don’t want there to be any coercion,” she said, and it is also necessary to show that the donation “will not affect the method of abortion.” 

She pointed out that, in its report, the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board “uncovered evidence for some of the research grants, that there was actually an absence of required documentation related to fetal-tissue collection, informed consent and procedures used to obtain the tissue.” 

“There is absolute proof that women have been coerced to donate their fetal tissue, and they have been lied to in the process,” Lee said. She gave the example of Mar Monte Planned Parenthood in California, where the consent form stated, “research using the blood from pregnant women and tissue that has been aborted has been used to treat and find a cure for such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and AIDS.” Lee noted that “there are no cures for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, so right on the form they lie to them, saying aborted fetal tissue has been used to find cures.” 

She also said there were “several examples and evidence of abortion procedures being modified by abortionists at the request of the researcher to mitigate the tissue fragmentation and to try to acquire better quality tissue that isn’t fragmented.” 

One 2015 undercover video from the pro-life Center for Medical Progress showed the director of research for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, Melissa Farrell, commenting that the facilities can perform abortions “in a way that they get the best specimens.”

Lee also highlighted privacy concerns in light of the “serious violations of HIPAA privacy” that were uncovered by the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives in which “abortion clinics disclosed patient’s individually identifiable health information to companies to facilitate efforts to procure fetal tissue for resale.” The panel’s report found “abortion clinics disclosed patients’ individually identifiable health information to StemExpress to facilitate the TPB [Tissue Procurement Business]’s efforts to procure human fetal tissue for resale.”


Ethical Alternatives 

Lee said a “lot of the research that is being done that is unethical and uses human fetal tissue is completely unnecessary because there are ethical alternatives available,” which makes researchers’ requests “to obtain federal funds to purchase these aborted baby parts completely unnecessary.” She gave the example of using aborted human fetal tissue to make humanized mouse models despite the existence of alternatives to make these models.

In a Daily Signal op-ed she co-authored, Lee criticized a study that used aborted baby lungs attached to the back of mice to make “lung-only mice” to study coronavirus. 

She wrote that “mice inherently cannot be infected with the coronavirus. Aborted baby lung tissue was used so that infection in the mice would occur,” and “hamsters are one better option, because they can be directly infected with the virus, as are xenografts using lungs from stillborn infants. Other alternatives, such as transgenic mice — which can be produced without fetal tissue — are even available commercially.”

“There are no treatments or therapies that are produced or manufactured using human fetal tissue from ongoing abortions,” she said. “Fetal cell lines from past abortions are sometimes used to make, test or develop vaccines or other pharmaceuticals, but they do not require the ongoing destruction of life. They were derived from past abortions.”