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Senate panel seeks middle ground on human fetal tissue research and abortion

A Senate spending panel yesterday countered a move by its House of Representatives counterpart to quash federal funding for research that uses human fetal tissue from elective abortions. The move sets up a conflict that will need to be resolved when lawmakers meet later this year to hash out differences between the House and Senate bills, which will provide funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, in a bill that boosts NIH funding by $2 billion, to $36.1 billion, ordered the biomedical research agency to launch a pilot study to determine whether banking tissue from stillbirths and spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, could serve all of the needs of biomedical researchers. The bill orders NIH to model its program on an NIH initiative that, 25 years ago, sought to assess the quality and quantity of such tissue as a first step in establishing a national network of banks of tissue from spontaneous abortions.

How researchers obtain human fetal tissue—which is used to study infectious diseases, eye maladies, normal and abnormal fetal development, and other illnesses—has long been a political flashpoint. Those opposed to abortion have for decades sought to ban the use of federal funds for studies that use fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan placed a de facto moratorium on the use of tissue from elective abortions, which President Bill Clinton lifted in 1993; Congress legalized funding for such research the same year.

“The Committee acknowledges the many differing views on the merits of human fetal tissue research,” Senate lawmakers wrote in a report accompanying the 2018 funding bill. As a result, they wrote, their bill “direct[s] NIH to begin a pilot to determine the adequacy of a fetal tissue donor network for supporting all related clinical research.”

The Senate language leaves untouched NIH’s ongoing support for research using fetal tissue from elective abortions. The agency expects to spend $107 million on projects using such tissue in the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September, and $81 million in 2018.

In contrast, the House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill in July that would bar NIH from conducting or funding fetal tissue research “if such tissue is obtained pursuant to an induced abortion.”

Some fetal tissue research advocates welcomed the milder Senate language. “This is probably a fair compromise between the people interested in completely banning fetal tissue research and those on the other saying fetal tissue research is still of value,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. “This is a tribute to the fact that the Senate committee [charged with NIH appropriations] works in a bipartisan manner but is also very supportive of biomedical research.”

Other fetal tissue research advocates were less enthusiastic. “While this is better than the language in the House bill, it is still disappointing,” Sean Tipton, the chief advocacy, policy, and development officer at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email. “We just hope fetal tissue research continues to be performed based on the scientific merits alone, and is not subject to political pressure from Congress.”

Opponents of the research were also disappointed. “It’s a very mild or modest step on the Senate side compared to what the House was proposing,” says David Prentice, vice president and research director of the nonprofit Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C., which opposes abortion. “It doesn’t foreclose any current research. We would be in favor of that foreclosure.”

Whatever resolution House and Senate lawmakers come to won’t be finalized before December at the earliest. Congress this week is expected to approve a continuing resolution that will freeze spending at 2017 levels through 8 December. In the meantime, the House and Senate will try to complete work on their 2018 spending bills, and then reach agreement on final spending levels and related language—such as the fetal tissue research provisions—included in the spending bills.