12 Facts About Fetal Tissue Research To Help You Understand Why Ending It Is A Big Deal

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This week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that federal scientists will no longer be allowed to use fetal tissue in their research. Moreover, the government also revealed that it will subject future fetal tissue research grants to additional oversight, like having applications reviewed by an ethics advisory board. Many researchers see this news as a significant step backward, saying that the facts about fetal tissue research show it plays a big role in scientific advancement.

"Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration," HHS said in a statement announcing the change Wednesday. As the Washington Post explained, some conservatives have long opposed fetal tissue research, linking it to abortion and saying that the research isn't "pro-life." The administration's announcement likely reflects a desire to appeal to that political base, The Post noted. However, the paper added, many in the scientific community believe that fetal tissue research is crucial for life-saving medical innovation.

It's not uncommon to encounter misinformation about fetal tissue research in the news or online, but there are true facts out there that explain what fetal tissue is, how it's used, and how it's changed the field of medicine.

It's Been Around Since The 1930s

As Research America, an alliance that "advocates for science, discovery, and innovation to achieve better health for all," noted on its website, fetal tissue research has been a part of American medical science for around 90 years.

It involves using tissue or cells from a "dead human embryo or fetus after a spontaneous or induced abortion or stillbirth" to conduct medical research, according to the National Institute of Health.

Fetal Tissue Is Used To Create "Cell Lines"

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Scientists use fetal tissue to create cell lines. Cell lines are essentially cultures of cells that can be "used and grown indefinitely," according to Research America. Scientists rely on these cell lines to conduct a variety of medical research, much of which is related to curing or more effectively treating some of the world's most devastating diseases, Research America noted.

Consent Is Crucial

Per NIH policy, patients have to provide informed consent for fetal tissue to be used following a termination. This consent also mandates that the doctor performing the procedure provides a statement affirming that a woman's decision to donate fetal tissue and her decision to have an abortion were not related in any way.

Fetal Tissue Can Be Obtained In Several Ways

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As the New York Times reported back in July 2015, researchers who use fetal tissue in their work can acquire it in several ways. The paper indicated that some scientists, who are typically affiliated with universities, can acquire fetal tissue from reproductive health clinics at their organization or from university tissue banks.

The Times added that researchers can also purchase fetal tissue from companies that serve as an intermediary between reproductive health clinics and research institutions. These companies process fetal tissue and can charge researchers related processing fees, but they are not legally allowed to make a profit from the transaction, the paper noted.

Reproductive Health Clinics Can't Profit From Providing Tissue For Research

As Scientific American noted in 2015, it's a crime for clinics that provide abortion services to profit from giving fetal tissue to researchers. The outlet indicated that clinics are allowed to charge researchers a small fee for the cost of harvesting the tissue, but that's it.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood announced back in October 2015 that it had stopped collecting any reimbursement funds for fetal tissue recovery costs.

There's Not A Comparable Alternative

While there's ongoing research into alternatives to fetal tissue, many scientists stress that there are currently no other options for conducting life-saving medical research in the same way, Scientific American reported.

Notably, Carrie Wolinetz, the National Institute of Health's associate director for science policy and director of the Office of Science Policy, explained the uniquely valuable nature of fetal tissue research in an interview with the outlet in December 2015.

“Fetal tissue is a flexible, less-differentiated tissue. It grows readily and adapts to new environments, allowing researchers to study basic biology or use it as a tool in a way that can’t be replicated with adult tissue,” Wolinetz told the magazine.

The Federal Government Has Funded Fetal Tissue Research Since The 1950s

The Guttmacher Institute noted that the National Institute of Health has been funding grants for fetal tissue research since the middle of the 20th century. Presently, there are around 200 NIH-funded fetal tissue research projects being conducted at universities across the United States, the New York Times reported.

It's Responsible For Huge Medical Breakthroughs

As Science magazine reported in January 2019, fetal tissue research has led to the development of major medical breakthroughs, including a host of important vaccines. The magazine noted that the vaccines for rabies, rubella, and hepatitis A, among others, were all developed as a result of fetal tissue research.

It's An Essential Part Of Work To Cure HIV/AIDS

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As amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, noted in a December 2018 press release, fetal tissue research has also played an important role in developing treatments for HIV/AIDS — and it could be key to curing the disease.

The organization noted that, right now, fetal tissue research constitutes the only way to conduct HIV/AIDS research because only human cells can be infected with the virus.

"Efforts to undermine or halt this work will inevitably slow, or at worst cripple, the development of promising therapies with the potential to cure HIV and save millions of lives worldwide," the organization noted in its press release.

It Helps Stop Diseases That Harm Babies & Children

Fetal tissue research is crucial to understanding and preventing childhood diseases and medical crises, Science explained. The outlet noted that determining which fetal tissue cells develop into childhood cancer cells, like those that cause eye and muscle cancers, is crucial to eradicating these cancers.

Moreover, studying fetal tissue is imperative for understanding how the Zika virus affects fetuses, with the hope of eventually preventing them from being infected with the virus. Notably, the Zika virus can cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly (small head size that is usually linked to irregular brain development), the CDC noted.

Fetal Tissue That's Not Used For Research Will Be Discarded

If fetal tissue isn't used for groundbreaking medical research, it is simply discarded. Sally Temple and Laurence S.B. Goldstein emphasized this point in an article for Science:

It is important to remember that the fetal tissue used in research would otherwise be discarded and thus unavailable in the fight against disease ...

It Has Saved Thousands Of Lives

Bioethicist R. Alta Charo summed up the value of fetal tissue research in a 2015 article for the New England Journal of Medicine. Charo emphasized in her piece that fetal tissue research has touched the lives of countless people — and saved many of them. As Charo wrote:

Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue ... Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us….Any discussion of the ethics of fetal tissue research must begin with its unimpeachable claim to have saved the lives and health of millions of people.

As these facts help illustrate, fetal tissue research clearly plays an integral role in medical advancements around the world. As the Trump administration continues to crack down on research work involving fetal tissue, it remains to be seen how exactly this will impact the rate of medical innovations that cure and prevent diseases.