The Many Harms of Politicizing Fetal Tissue Research to Attack Abortion Rights

New Analysis Provides Medical and Regulatory Context, Documents Harmful Impact of Politically Motivated Attacks

Fetal tissue research has led to major advances in human health, including the virtual elimination of diseases such as polio, measles and rubella in the United States. However, according to a new analysis in the Guttmacher Policy Review, this critical avenue of medical research now finds itself at the center of a political firestorm instigated by antiabortion activists and lawmakers, who are using it to attack abortion rights generally and the leading reproductive health provider Planned Parenthood in particular.

The issue of fetal tissue donations and research burst into the limelight in the summer of 2015, when antiabortion activists released deceptively edited videos attacking fetal tissue donations facilitated by Planned Parenthood health centers. The analysis documents these attacks as well as past episodes where opponents of abortion rights have seized upon fetal tissue research along similar lines.

"The most recent attacks not only target sexual and reproductive health and rights, but also pose a threat to the large numbers of people who could benefit from fetal tissue research," says Heather Boonstra, author of the analysis. "Abortion opponents hope to undermine the right to abortion and women’s access to the procedure, but their smear campaign jeopardizes potentially life-saving medical advances as well."

Boonstra discusses the past and present medical significance of fetal tissue research. Top medical research facilities, including leading universities and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have long used fetal tissue donations derived from abortions to study and develop treatments for life-threatening diseases. Researchers are currently using fetal cells to develop vaccines against diseases such as Ebola, HIV and dengue fever. Fetal tissue is also critical to developing treatments for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

The analysis also lays out how federal and state laws have regulated fetal tissue donation for more than four decades to ensure proper legal protections and high ethical standards. Federal law prohibits anyone from making a profit from fetal tissue donation, but does allow reasonable compensation for costs associated with such donations. This federal policy is used as the standard for all fetal tissue donations by abortion providers affiliated with Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation.

Boonstra further offers for the first time an overview of state policies on fetal tissue donation and research, finding that 38 states and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly permit fetal tissue donations for research, therapy or education. The remaining 12 states neither allow nor disallow fetal tissue donation. In addition, five states have laws that ban research using fetal tissue obtained from abortions throughout pregnancy. Since July 2015, when renewed attacks on fetal tissue research began, several states and Congress have introduced bills to ban or heavily restrict fetal tissue donation and research.

"Scientists who engage in fetal tissue research are rightfully concerned that their work is once again being misused as a weapon to undermine abortion rights, with potentially broad and devastating consequences," says Boonstra. "In today’s volatile political climate, targeting fetal tissue research threatens not only women who seek safe abortion care and those who provide it, but also the millions of people globally who could continue to benefit from fetal tissue research."