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Federal Agency to Consult With Anti-Choice Groups on Fetal Tissue Research

Pro-choice advocacy groups say that health officials could put religious beliefs over important medical research.

Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar II attends a conference on neonatal abstinence syndrome at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 17, 2018.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is continuing its audit into its fetal tissue research policies by consulting with scientists and anti-choice groups.

HHS officials scheduled a “listening session” for Friday with several scientist groups including the American Society for Cell Biology, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and the Society for Neuroscience to discuss the agency’s policies and funding for research using fetal tissue. Agencies officials have already met with anti-choice groups on the issue according to a report by Politico. An HHS spokesperson confirmed to Rewire.News that the agency would be holding multiple listening sessions “with various stakeholders e.g. scientists, pro-life groups, ethicists” on this issue.

It’s unclear exactly which anti-choice groups have consulted with HHS regarding fetal tissue policies, but the Susan B. Anthony List has been named in multiple reports as having met with agency officials. The president of the group, Marjorie Dannenfelser, signed a September letter from several anti-choice groups to HHS Secretary Alex Azar calling for a ban on federal fetal tissue research grants.

“HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved,” said the spokesperson in an email. “Finally, HHS is continuing to review whether adequate alternatives exist to the use of human fetal tissue in HHS-funded research and will ensure that efforts to develop such alternatives are funded and accelerated.”

Pro-choice advocacy groups voiced their concerns that health officials would put the religious beliefs of anti-choice groups over important medical research. “Azar has continually painted himself as a no-nonsense technocrat, yet he continually kowtows to anti-abortion interest groups while ignoring the scientific and medical community time and time again,” said Mary Alice Carter, executive director of Equity Forward, in a statement. “That Azar is willing to put the health and lives of millions at risk by denying them access to the best possible scientific research to score a few political points is alarming. Our nation’s health department should be protecting our health, not rolling back medical and scientific advances.”

The fetal tissue audit was announced in September following the cancellation of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contract with tissue provider Advanced Bioscience Resources Inc. (ABR). In a letter to the company, HHS said it was “not sufficiently assured” that ABR’s contract complied with agency regulations.

Pro-choice legislators claimed the GOP was “on the warpath” against fetal tissue research in reaction to the termination of ABR’s contract and subsequent HHS policy review. “This prolongs the far-right war against science and medical progress, based on religious beliefs but no solid evidence of improprieties,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who was a member on the so-called House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, which investigated previous claims against ABR and other providers of fetal tissue, in a statement at the time to Rewire.News. The panel found no evidence that abortion providers profited from the donation of fetal tissue for use in scientific research.

The federal government has funded fetal tissue research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since the 1950s. A spokesperson for NIH, the health research arm of HHS, previously told Rewire.News in an email that it provided $98 million for human fetal tissue research in fiscal year 2017, the last complete year for which figures were available.

There’s disagreement between HHS political appointees and career professionals over the issue. An FDA spokesperson told Politico in September that fetal tissue “has been used in situations where it is critical to understanding the safety of drugs and vaccines and in which it couldn’t be feasibly achieved through another means. This work has led to a better understanding of a number of conditions and diseases that affect millions of Americans.”

According to a report from STAT, the meetings and the policy review are being led by Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir and HHS official Paula Stannard. Giroir is reportedly “enthusiastic” about finding alternatives to fetal tissue research.

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