So far the new Republican Congress has proved better at identifying things it doesn’t like -- Obamacare, for example, or an independent ethics office -- than actually getting rid of them. On one issue, however, Congress may yet get its way: abortion.
Last week a House panel issued a report recommending that the federal government restrict or end medical science performed with human fetal tissue. With a Republican majority in Congress and a staunch abortion opponent about to take over the Department of Health and Human Services, there is a real possibility this recommendation could become policy. And the goal here, to be clear, is to limit abortion. When the federal government funds research on tissue derived from aborted fetuses, the panel report notes, it indirectly supports the practice of abortion itself.
Of course, there is another way of looking at the same situation: Abortions are legal and regularly performed in the US, and some women who have them voluntarily decide to donate the fetal tissue to research. This benefits all sorts of scientific efforts, including vaccine development, HIV and AIDS research, infectious disease investigations, work on treatments for Parkinson’s disease, and, not least, research on conditions such as diabetes and schizophrenia that have roots in early embryonic development.
Politicians on the House panel say other kinds of tissue -- including nonfetal stem cells -- could be used just as well. And they point out that not much fetal tissue is used in clinical trials anyway.
Scientists at dozens of research universities and medical associations disagree, noting that very often researchers need to work with cellular systems that are less differentiated than adult cells. Fetal cells injected into the livers of newborn mice, for example, can be used to study how viruses get around the human immune system.
In any case, the amount of research done with fetal tissue is no measure of the importance of the work.
The effort to ban fetal tissue research is yet another indirect anti-abortion ploy. After the House panel issued its report, the speaker of the House announced his party’s intention to also strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health care provider whose work includes abortions.
At least Republicans are being more honest when they boldly pledge to seek a justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the US. Yet make no mistake: Not only are Republicans making cooperation more difficult by prioritizing one of the most polarizing issues in US politics, but they are also attempting to deny American women a right they have possessed for more than four decades.