AGs Ask Feds To Allow Fetal Tissue Research For COVID-19

Law360 (March 26, 2020, 4:15 PM EDT) -- More than a dozen state attorneys general urged the Trump administration Thursday to again allow research using fetal tissue, saying the current policy limits development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Attorneys general for 14 states and the District of Columbia signed a letter asking the White House, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health to end a June 2019 measure that sharply curtailed fetal-tissue research, saying such a move could accelerate development of a vaccine to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Scientists at the NIH have been asking the administration for an exemption from the ban to help them address the ongoing pandemic, according to the letter signed by attorneys general from states including California, New York, Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.

“If we are going to rise as a nation to overcome this pandemic, then we need to utilize all the tools in our toolbox, including allowing our scientists to develop a vaccine and treatment to COVID-19,” they said.

In the past, scientific research using fetal tissue has been used to develop vaccines against diseases such as polio, measles and rabies, they said, and is a tool for work on treatments for HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s.

In 1993, a bipartisan Congress voted to legalize fetal tissue research after recognizing its importance, they wrote, and the American Medical Association’s code of ethics permits doctors to work with the material.

“Science-based decision making should be at the forefront when addressing this issue and the scientists’ position on this issue has been clear: Currently, there are no alternatives to human fetal tissue that have been shown to be as powerful in conducting these important studies across a broad range of research topics,” they said.

“We agree with the scientists at the National Institutes of Health. The present moment is not a time for politics,” according to the letter.

In June 2019 after undergoing a review of its policies, HHS announced it was ending certain partnerships with researchers who use fetal tissue from elective abortions. The federal government said at the time that any research projects that would use fetal tissue and that seek funding from NIH would have to go before a special ethics advisory board that would review the proposal.

“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 at the time.

The White House, HHS and NIH did not respond to requests for comment.

The use of fetal tissue in research became a flash point in recent years for anti-abortion activists after a series of secretly recorded videos were released involving Planned Parenthood officials discussing the materials.

In November, a California federal jury awarded the health care provider more than $2 million in damages as anti-abortion activists at the Center for Medical Progress were found to have surreptitiously recorded Planned Parenthood's clinics and doctors and then posted the video footage online. An attorney for one of the defendants in that case promised to appeal.

That verdict came more than four years after David Daleiden and the other anti-abortion activists posted undercover videos on YouTube of Planned Parenthood staff purportedly discussing procedures related to the harvesting and transfer of fetal tissue for research purposes.

The activists had argued that their videos were "undercover investigative journalism" that exposed a market for fetal tissue.

The videos led to federal and congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood, but the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which led one of the investigations, later found "the videos include no credible evidence that Planned Parenthood profits from its fetal tissue donation program."

--Additional reporting by Hannah Albarazi. Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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