The Trump administration will review whether fetal tissue research is complying with regulations, following letters from antiabortion groups criticizing a Food and Drug Administration supply contract. The review was announced Monday in a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research…in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.”
A 1993 law made such research legal, yet it has been a focus of controversy and criticism by Republicans, according to Science. That law prohibits profiting from supplying the tissue, allowing only “reasonable payments” to cover the costs of processing, storage, and transportation.
The department also abruptly cancelled the contract in which the California-based Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR) was providing fetal tissue to the FDA for drug testing on what they call “humanized” mice, with immune systems more similar to those of humans. HHS is also planning an audit on similar contracts involving fetal tissue, which is likely to include both projects taking place at HHS agencies and work by outside researchers using HHS funding.
“Fetal tissue research is already subject to a robust ethical and legal framework and research that continues to meet those standards should be continued,” according to Association of American Medical Colleges chief scientific officer Ross McKinney.
Human fetal issue is most often used in studies on infectious diseases, developmental disorders, eye diseases, and developmental biology. A 2016 report by Republican representatives called on the federal government to begin obtaining the tissue from miscarriages and stillbirths instead of from elective abortions. However, opponents have repeatedly failed to enact legislation ending this practice, including an attempt earlier this month to prohibit research using the tissue as part of the HHS spending bill for 2019.
Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin law and bioethics professor, said of the move:
“My instinct is that this is driven by politics, and is part of the overall effort to stigmatize and eventually criminalize abortion, as well as part of a larger campaign to roll back the clock on sexual and reproductive rights.”
And University of California neuroscientist Lawrence Goldstein said the review “could have a chilling effect on valuable research because companies who provide tissue may be scared out of use and provision.”