Explainer: Federal government creates ethics advisory board for human fetal tissue research

March 3, 2020

In February, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a notice of intent to convene the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board for fiscal year 2020.

In June, 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced several changes, which ERLC supported, to its policy on the use of fetal tissue in projects done by researchers within HHS (intramural research) and by outside researchers receiving NIH funding (extramural research). Intramural research using fetal tissue was banned, while new applications for extramural research using human fetal tissue will be subject to congressionally-authorized review by an ethics advisory board.

Responding to the announcement last year, ERLC president, Russell Moore said, “I am glad that HHS has taken a significant step toward restoring medical ethics in research at NIH. The bodies of children are not resources to be harvested. We have learned troubling things in recent years about the relationship between the medical profession and the abortion industry. No government should exploit innocent human life as a means to an end for any purpose. I am grateful for this action.”

Now HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s is soliciting nominations for 15 individuals who are not federal employees to be appointed to the board. This Ethics Board will advise the HHS secretary on whether proposed extramural research using human fetal tissue is ethical and whether it should be funded by HHS.

What is fetal tissue research?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, fetal tissue research is biomedical research that “involves cells from dead fetuses that are harvested for the purpose of establishing cell lines or for use as transplantation material and other purposes.” It should be noted that while the legal medical term “fetus” is accurate to describe the stage of human life in utero, it is too often overused to mask the human dignity of the child. 

Where does fetal tissue come from?

Fetal tissue used in medical research is derived from babies that have died either through elective (or induced) abortions or from natural miscarriages. Fetal tissue research funded by NIH must meet a variety of legal requirements, such as obtaining consent of the mother of the baby. 

How much government funding goes to fetal tissue research?

In 2014, the NIH funded 164 projects using such tissue, at a cost of $76 million. The tissue is used mostly for research on infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS; in the study of retinal function and disease; and in studies of normal and anomalous fetal development. 

Isn’t it illegal to buy and sell human fetal tissue?

Not necessarily. There are two main federal laws related to organ selling:

In each of these laws, the term “valuable consideration” does not include “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.” 

On March 22, 1988, the assistant secretary for Health of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the Reagan administration imposed a temporary moratorium on federal funding of research involving transplantation of fetal tissue from induced abortions. On Nov. 2, 1989, the HHS secretary extended the moratorium indefinitely. On Jan. 22, 1993 President Bill Clinton lifted the moratorium. The policy has been somewhat modified by the new HHS policy and the ethics review process.

Currently, tissue and organs from aborted babies may be used for therapeutic purposes provided the material was freely donated by women following their decision to terminate (because of 42 U.S. Code 289g it is illegal for a clinic to ask for approval prior to the abortion).

What is the main ethical consideration in fetal tissue research?

The bioethical considerations of fetal tissue research warrant additional oversight because obtaining fetal tissue can lead to material cooperation with the evil act of abortion.

We should prohibit the acquisition of fetal tissue acquired from elective abortion (as opposed to natural miscarriages) since it provides a material incentive and justification of the immoral practice of killing children in the womb.

As Christians we should strive to avoid cooperating with evil and prevent it from occurring in the future. For this reason we should encourage the HHS to appoint members of the Ethics Board who advise the HHS Secretary to not use or fund human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions.