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House Republicans move to bar funding for NIH fetal tissue research

Republicans in the House of Representatives have launched an effort to prevent the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding research using fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. A 2018 funding bill being taken up this afternoon by the House subcommittee that holds the NIH purse strings includes a single sentence that would bar the use of federal funds “to conduct or support research using human fetal tissue if such tissue is obtained pursuant to an induced abortion.”

The language mirrors a recommendation made earlier this year by Republicans on a now disbanded special House panel—the Select Investigative Committee on Infant Lives—that called for a halt to such funding. It also echoes past Republican efforts to pass legislation achieving that goal; none of those bills has become law.

Research and university groups are opposing the so-called policy rider on NIH’s appropriations bill, for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. “We are disappointed that the bill places arbitrary restrictions on research using fetal tissue, undermining the nation’s well-established review system to evaluate the scientific merit and validity of research proposals,” said Darrell Kirch, CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., in a statement. He added that the research is contributing to scientists’ understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, blindness, spinal cord injuries, stroke, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Research using human fetal tissue is invaluable to scientific and medical communities worldwide that study and work on human development and disease,” said Hans Clevers, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), and a stem cell researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in a statement released 14 JulyThe statement points to this 11-page ISSCR document examining how fetal tissue has led to disease therapies and preventive vaccines.

But Representative Andy Harris (R–MD), who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees NIH, hailed the provision. The House special panel, he claimed, had found “that there is an industry, selling fetal tissue for research, which operates outside the current laws governing ethical research.” He added: “Until these matters are addressed, we must pause the expenditure of federal funds to obtain fetal tissue from … induced abortions.”

The special panel was formed after the Center for Medical Progress, an antiabortion group, in 2015 released videos it had covertly filmed of interviews with senior Planned Parenthood physicians frankly discussing their provision of fetal tissue from abortions for medical research, which is legal under a 1993 federal law. More than a dozen state and congressional investigations were launched in response to the videos; none found evidence leading to charges against Planned Parenthood, other abortion providers, or companies that receive and process the tissue.

David Prentice, vice president and research director of the nonprofit Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C., which opposes abortion, also applauded the new language. “I hope that it will focus efforts on alternatives to fetal tissue, of which there are a great number: induced pluripotent stem cells and their organoids, adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood stem cells,” he told ScienceInsider. “There are ample alternatives to what really are now antiquated research techniques using aborted fetal tissue.”

NIH expects to spend $107 million on projects using fetal tissue in the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. That is up from $103 million in 2016, when the biomedical agency funded 228 projects using the tissue.

This late 2015 article in Nature broke down the grants using fetal tissue that NIH funded in 2014, according to general area of research. Nearly 40% involved HIV/AIDS, followed by, in descending order: developmental biology; eye development and disease; other infectious diseases like hepatitis C; miscellaneous; and in utero diseases, toxic exposures, and congenital conditions.

The new provision is far from certain to become law. The full House is likely to approve the language, Prentice says. But he predicts “it will be a lightning rod” for criticism in the Senate, where 60 votes are typically needed to advance annual appropriations bills. If the provision does become law, it would apply only to the 2018 fiscal year; Congress would have to vote again to extend it into future years.

The issue is not likely to be resolved any time soon. Congress is not expected to finish its work on the 2018 spending bills by the start of the new fiscal year, and is likely to extend current spending levels into the new budget year through a continuing resolution. It is unlikely that the resolution would include controversial policy riders.

Updated, 7/14/2017, 11:23 a.m..: This story has been updated to include a statement from ISSCR.