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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (right) is carrying out President Donald Trumps fetal tissue policy.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Antiabortion ethicists and scientists dominate Trump’s fetal tissue review board

Last summer, the Trump administration clamped down on federally funded fetal tissue research by requiring that such projects go through an ethics review by a new advisory board. Research advocates were eager to learn who Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar would appoint to the board and to see its ideological makeup. Today they got their first look as it gathered online for a one-time meeting run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Although the 1-hour public portion of the meeting was perfunctory—limited to introductions and public comments—it offered a glimpse of the opposition that may greet proposals to work with fetal tissue donated after elective abortions. At least 10 of the 15 members of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board oppose abortion, and several have publicly stated positions against the funding of fetal tissue research.

“The board is stacked with people who are known to oppose use of tissue from induced abortions, regardless of the scientific necessity and regardless of the fact that using such tissue does not in any way affect whether an abortion will take place,” says R. Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Charo concedes that the board includes “real scientists who understand the research importance of this tissue.” But because it does not need to reach unanimity in order to reject a proposal, their presence “will not stand in the way of a majority dismissing it out of hand.”

But Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion, says 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.”

Scientists use human fetal tissue for research on diseases from HIV to Alzheimer’s. More recently, at least one scientist has been kept from studying the new coronavirus by his lack of access to the tissue, his colleagues told The Washington Post. A 2018 NIH workshop attended by HHS leaders concluded that human fetal tissue remains the “gold standard” for certain studies.

NIH officials and board members did not reveal the number of proposals being reviewed by the board in the closed session of today’s meeting. But NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak told panelists that it includes proposals responding to a $20 million NIH program funding research on alternatives to fetal tissue. NIH Director Francis Collins has previously said such work cannot be done without using fetal tissue as a comparator.

Tabak noted that the proposals being reviewed today have already been recommended for funding after two stages of scientific review. The board’s task, he said, was to “address whether the [HHS] Secretary should or should not withhold funds for a proposed project because of ethical considerations.” The review will include the consent process used to obtain the tissue donation from a woman having an abortion. The board will disclose its decisions in a report to be submitted to Azar and to Congress by 18 August.

During a brief public comment period this morning, two scientists and one bioethicist, Charo, defended the use of fetal tissue, noting its use in research on AIDS, cancer, blindness, neonatal treatments, and vaccines. “No tissue culture research can substitute,” said Stanford University stem cell researcher Irving Weissman.

Two researchers expressed opposition to the use of fetal tissue. Such work is unethical if “even in a small part contributory to motivating elective abortions,” asserted James Sherley, an associate scholar at the antiabortion Charlotte Lozier Institute and director of the adult stem cell company Asymmetrex. (Sherley was one of two scientists who sued NIH in 2010 to try to stop the agency from funding human embryonic stem cell research.)

The board’s chair, Paige Comstock Cunningham, an attorney, ethicist, and opponent of fetal tissue research, noted her “appreciation to Secretary Azar and the leadership” for setting up “what I believe to be the first time there has been this kind of independent ethics advisory board reviewing these proposals.”

The law governing the new board requires it to include at least one attorney, ethicist, practicing physician, and theologian as well as biomedical or behavioral researchers. Here’s a breakdown of its 15 members, who were selected from among 105 nominations, according to an NIH spokesperson:

Paige Comstock Cunningham, the board’s chair, is a lawyer with a Ph.D. in educational studies from an evangelical divinity school. She is interim president of Taylor University, an evangelical Christian university in Upland, Indiana, and executive director of the Trinity International University Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. She is the former president of an antiabortion organization, Americans United for Life. Cunningham has testified before Congress in opposition to fetal tissue research, and in opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in part because of her support for abortion rights.

Greg Burke, an internist in private practice in Danville, Pennsylvania, is a co-chair of the Catholic Medical Association’s (CMA’s) ethics committee. He also writes regularly on bioethical issues and has argued that contraception leads to “lessened human dignity” but is “warped into an almost ubiquitous argument for so-called ‘women’s rights.’”

Maureen Condic is one of three committee members affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a developmental biologist at the University of Utah, where she attempts to coax cells from amniotic fluid to become heart cells that could treat congenital heart defects. She has served since 2018 on the Trump administration’s National Science Board, advising the National Science Foundation. ScienceInsider profiled her here.

G. Kevin Donovan is a pediatrician who directs a center for clinical bioethics at Georgetown University. His 2016 testimony before a House committee examining bioethics and fetal tissue included this statement: “Moral arguments exist that support our natural abhorrence at the trafficking of human fetal parts. Surely we can, and surely we must, find a better way.”

Ashley Fernandes, a pediatrician and associate director of the center for bioethics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, also holds a doctorate in philosophy and is a member of CMA. With others in that group, he wrote to the Ohio state legislature last year, urging it to pass a bill that would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat becomes detectable about 6 weeks into pregnancy.

Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has used human fetal tissue in his research on Alzheimer’s disease and has been an outspoken advocate of its use. Last year, when the Trump administration announced the new restrictions on the research, he told ScienceInsider: “I think it’s a terrible policy ultimately. If you think about it, fetal tissue will be incinerated instead of using it for valuable research. What’s the sense in that?”

Ashwini Lakshmanan, a neonatologist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, also studies discrepancies in health care delivery around and soon after the time of birth.

Thomas Meade, an inorganic chemist and molecular imaging expert at Northwestern University, studies the development of probes for magnetic resonance and optical imaging.

C. Ben Mitchell is a professor of moral philosophy at Union University, a Christian university in Jackson, Tennessee. Mitchell has a Ph.D. in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics from the University of Tennessee. He has worked, variously, with or for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Johns Hopkins University’s Genetics and Public Policy Center, and the Council for Biotechnology Policy. Widely quoted in the media, he has testified before Congress, where he vehemently opposed an Obama administration requirement that health insurance plans, including those offered by employers that oppose birth control, provide women with free contraception. 

Susan Kay Murphy, an epigeneticist who studies gynecological malignancies at the Duke University Medical Center, is currently focused on the effects of cannabis exposure on sperm, and their heritability.

Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Yale Universitytrained Ph.D. neuroscientist and Catholic priest, is director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He also spent 5 years studying theology and bioethics in Rome, “examining delayed ensoulment of the human embryo.” He told one Catholic group in 2006 that human embryonic stem cell research and cloning “represent the worst kind of medical research possible, where the powerful exploit the weak and vulnerable.” He has testified before state legislatures and been widely quoted in the press.

David A. Prentice, a Ph.D. biochemist, is vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Prentice has followed the policy debate around fetal tissue use in research perhaps more closely than any abortion opponent, including testifying before Congress last year in opposition to U.S. funding of the research. Currently, he is urging the U.S. government to provide alternatives to two leading coronavirus vaccine candidates that are made using historical human fetal cell lines and have major U.S. funding behind them.

Kathleen Marie Schmainda is a biophysicist at the Medical College of Wisconsin and an opponent of human fetal tissue research. “Simply because something can be done does not mean that it should be permitted,” she wrote in an op-ed in USA Today.

Ingrid Skop, an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas, is also a board member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and an associate member of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. She has testified before the Texas legislature in favor of abortion restrictions.

H. Joseph Yost, a developmental geneticist at the University of Utah School of Medicine, studies how cells are assigned identities in vertebrate embryos.