Pro-Lifers Hail HHS Ethics Board’s Findings Against Fetal Tissue Research

The ethics board reviewed 14 research proposals and recommended that HHS withhold funding from all but one of them.

An unborn baby in the first trimester.
An unborn baby in the first trimester. (photo: u3d / Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — For the first time since 1993, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convened an Ethics Advisory Board to make funding recommendations for research projects involving human fetal tissue. 

The board reviewed 14 research proposals and, in August, recommended that the HHS withhold funding from all but one of them.

Pro-life advocates said that this ethical review of research involving fetal tissue is long overdue, and that most projects using fetal tissue could proceed using other means. 

Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, said that previous expert panels examining “similar topics … have leaned heavily toward people in favor of abortion on demand and research that destroys embryos. We are pleased and encouraged to see this board is more properly balanced.”

The National Institutes of Health, a division of the HHS, spends more than $40 billion a year on medical research, most in the form of grants. When the research involves human subjects, federal law prohibits the HHS secretary from granting funding to projects that have not been approved by both an institutional review board and a peer review. Additionally, the law authorizes the secretary to convene an ethics advisory board to review the proposed research projects and make recommendations to withhold funding. 

In recent decades, the NIH has funded numerous projects involving fetal tissue, including research at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) that, since 2006, included creating humanized mice from liver and thymus tissue harvested from human fetuses aborted between 20 and 24 weeks gestation. 

In 2018, the Trump administration announced a halt to the funding of all new grants for research projects using human fetal tissue — including the annual grant to UCSF — and soon afterward announced the formation of an ethics advisory board to review new grant applicants. 

“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's administration,” an HHS statement said.

Having made its funding recommendations for the fourteen proposals, the ethics board is not expected to meet again, although the secretary may convene another board at a later date.


The Board’s Findings

According to the NIH statute, an ethics board must number between 14 and 20 individuals, including at least one attorney, one ethicist, one practicing physician, and one theologian. Additionally, between one-third and one-half must be scientists “with substantial accomplishments in biomedical or behavioral research.” The HHS secretary appoints the members of the ethics board. 

The members of the advisory board are not permitted to discuss the deliberations that took place during their single meeting on July 31, but the board released a report describing in general terms what arguments were put forward for and against each proposal, in addition to the final tally of votes on each. 

The only proposal from that the board did not recommend withholding funding relies on fetal tissue already in storage, rather than requiring the acquisition of fresh tissue. A board member said that the primary reason the board approved this project is that, if successful, it will create alternative models and eliminate the demand for humanized mice produced with fetal tissue.

Members of the board praised aspects of some other proposals but apparently voted against recommending funding due to the unnecessary reliance on fetal tissue. The Washington Post reported that the NIH has encouraged at least four researchers to revise and resubmit their proposals.

G. Kevin Donovan, a member of the ethics board and director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, said he hopes that the board’s decisions will spark innovation in other areas. 

“As scientists involved in research see the outcomes of the ethics advisory board, we can hope and expect that they will pay greater attention to the successful research that is possible without resorting to human fetal tissue,” Donovan told the Register.



Proponents of human fetal tissue research criticized the formation of the ethics board and its conclusions, saying the board is detrimental to scientific progress and will stall critical research. They noted that at least 10 of the 15 board members already had some record of opposing abortion or fetal tissue research.

Three Democrat lawmakers, in a Sept. 14 letter, urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar to ignore the recommendations of the ethics board, saying that the recommendations reflect an “extreme ideology and are contrary to scientific consensus about the value of fetal tissue research.” 

Lawrence Goldstein, another member of the ethics board who is a professor in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the department of Neurosciences at the University of California-San Diego, is an outspoken critic of the board and its recommendations. 

“The behavior and recommendations of this biased ethics board are already generating a chilling effect on considerable valuable fetal tissue research,” Goldstein told the Register. Goldstein said he has used fetal tissue in his own research. 

“Some proposed HIV or COVID-19 therapies should be tested in so-called humanized mice with human immune and blood forming systems prior to testing in humans in clinical trials,” Goldstein said. “The effective ban on fetal tissue in generating these humanized mice for therapy development will stall the testing of potentially valuable drugs and other agents such as antibodies.”

“Humanized mice” are mice that have been engrafted with a human immune system, DNA, tissue, tumor, or other human material in order for scientists to study human-like reactions to experiments, without using living human subjects. Some mice are “humanized” with material obtained from the organs of aborted human fetuses.

Goldstein said he thinks that the ethics board is unnecessary. “This function could appropriately be carried out by professional staff at NIH and by scientific peer reviewers,” he said. 


Father Pacholczyk’s Perspective

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a member of the ethics board and director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, also has qualms about the ethics board, but for different reasons. 

“Some scientists would prefer to be able to hand-pick members of these boards and stack them with like-minded scientists and researchers who view research through a utilitarian lens,” Father Pacholczyk told the Register. “They would prefer to exclude board members who insist that there may be certain kinds of research that one should never do, no matter the advantages or benefits that might accrue. Stacking ethics advisory boards in this way is, of course, nothing less than handing over control of the henhouse to the foxes.”

“Issues of ethics — questions of propriety and of right and wrong — do not, in the final analysis, hinge on what any committee decides by voting,” he said. “The truth of our ethical duties as humans precedes and supersedes any ‘consensus’ or lack thereof that might arise from any advisory board's deliberations.”

Register correspondent Mary Rose Short writes from California.