Young girl using Pulmozyme aerosols

Human fetal kidney cells were used to develop Genentech’s Pulmozyme, which helps clear thick mucus from the lungs of children with cystic fibrosis.

BSIP SA/Alamy Stock Photo

Fact-checking Congress’s fetal tissue report

The House of Representatives Select Investigative Panel investigating the procurement of fetal tissue for research has disbanded, but not before recommending that the National Institutes of Health be required to stop funding fetal tissue research, and that the huge health provider Planned Parenthood be stripped of U.S. funding. On the heels of the panel’s call, House speaker Paul Ryan (R–WI) said on Thursday that he would include a provision defunding Planned Parenthood in a high-priority bill repealing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have long sought to block Planned Parenthood from receiving U.S. funding because it provides abortions as well as birth control and preventive health services.

The dissolution of the panel—which Republicans called “The Select Panel on Infant Lives”—follows an expansive, 15-month investigation prompted by undercover videos released in the summer of 2015. In these, antiabortion activists posed as biotechnology executives. They interviewed senior physicians from Planned Parenthood, who spoke bluntly about their provision of fetal tissue from legal abortions for medical research—a process that is legal under a 1993 federal law as long as the provider recovers only costs for donating the tissue.

Chaired by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R–TN), who is now helping steer President-elect Donald Trump’s transition, the panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee issued, as it exited the stage, a 413-page Final Report. Besides targeting Planned Parenthood, which receives more than $500 million annually in federal funding, much of it through the Medicaid health program for the poor, the report also takes to task research institutions, other abortion providers, and the companies that process and prepare fetal tissue for researchers. It accuses some of illegally profiting from the sale of fetal tissue, which is forbidden under the 1993 law. And it cites numerous examples to conclude that “human fetal tissue research makes a vanishingly small contribution to clinical and research efforts.” But a close look at those claims reveals inaccuracies; a sampling follows:

Report, p. xxxix:

“In over 100 years of unrestricted clinical research, human fetal tissue has failed to provide a single medical treatment …”

Fact: Several important medicines now on the market were created using fetal tissue. Amgen’s Enbrel battles rheumatoid arthritis; Genentech’s Pulmozyme helps children with cystic fibrosis clear the thick mucus that clogs their lungs; and Nuwiq, made by Octapharma, treats boys and men with hemophilia, a life-threatening bleeding disorder.

Report, p. 379:

“Several letters [from the Association of American Medical Colleges and others] … suggest that human fetal tissue is used for modern vaccine production. In reality, none of the nearly 75 vaccine formulations currently licensed in the United States is produced using human fetal tissue …”

Fact: The WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, derived from two fetuses that were aborted, respectively, in 1962 in Sweden and in 1966 in the United Kingdom, are used to produce the following vaccines, all licensed and marketed in the United States:

  • Sanofi-Pasteur’s Imovax rabies vaccine is propagated in MRC-5 cells. When they were introduced in the 1970s, human fetal cell–propagated rabies vaccines supplanted dangerous and occasionally fatal animal tissue–produced rabies vaccines.
  • Merck’s chicken pox and shingles vaccines are propagated in MRC-5 cells; they are produced at a relatively new company plant in North Carolina. The weakened “Oka” virus used in both vaccines was initially attenuated in WI-38 cells.
  • Merck’s rubella vaccine—the “R” component in the MMR vaccine given to U.S. infants and preschoolers—is propagated in WI-38 cells on the company’s campus northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Merck has shipped nearly 700 million doses of the rubella vaccine since its launch in 1979. Also known as German measles, rubella, like Zika virus, attacks and damages fetuses in the womb.
  • Hepatitis A vaccines are marketed in the United States by both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline; both companies propagate their vaccines in MRC-5 cells.
  • The polio component of Sanofi Pasteur’s U.S.-marketed Quadracel vaccine (which also protects against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) is propagated in MRC-5 cells.
  • The adenovirus vaccine that since 1970 has protected nearly 10 million members of the U.S. military from respiratory infections is propagated using WI-38 cells.

(In seeming contradiction, the report goes on to state, one page later, that “11 [current vaccines] … are produced using historic, fetal-derived cell lines.”)

Report, p 376:

“… human fetal tissue has never been used to make the polio vaccine.”

Fact: Virologists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden used fetal cells to propagate a polio vaccine in the mid-1950s; it was given to some 2000 schoolchildren. In 1967 and 1968, Yugoslavia conducted a mass polio vaccination campaign using polio virus propagated in WI-38 cells; Sweden and Switzerland had already run trials of the same vaccine. In the early 1970s, Pfizer launched a polio vaccine propagated in WI-38 cells in the United States. And the French vaccinemaker Sanofi Pasteur uses MRC-5 cells to make polio vaccine to this day.

Blackburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the errors. In a statement responding to the report, Planned Parenthood noted that three other congressional investigations and 13 state-level probes of the group, including one by a grand jury in Texas, have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.