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WASHINGTON — Could fetal tissue research be the key to understanding the effects of the Zika virus?

That was the provocative suggestion at a House hearing Wednesday about the merits of research of fetal tissue procured from abortions — a topic that was already guaranteed to stir up enough trouble on its own.

A Democratic lawmaker and a bioethics professor said that fetal tissue research might be necessary to understand how the Zika virus affects the development of a fetus during a pregnancy— but a Republican lawmaker and another medical ethics expert quickly shot down the idea that fetal tissue might be needed to develop a vaccine.


The exchange took place as a special investigative panel created by the House Energy and Commerce Committee debated for several hours whether fetal tissue procured from abortions — which is at the center of the Planned Parenthood controversy that led to the committee’s creation— should be used for medical research.

Alta Charo, a bioethics professor from the University of Wisconsin who defended fetal tissue research, first raised the issue during her opening statement.


The US Department of Health and Human Services “says that ‘fetal tissue continues to be a critical resource; for developing vaccines against dengue fever, HIV, and Ebola, and for research on devastating diseases such as Huntington’s chorea and Alzheimer’s,” Charo, who was invited by the panel’s Democrats, said. “And as of this year, Zika virus is also on that growing list.”

Are you at risk for contracting Zika virus? Your level of risk depends in part on your living conditions. Alex Hogan/STAT

She also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued guidance for fetal tissue to be submitted so the agency could test for the virus as it seeks to better diagnose and study the contagion.

The complications associated with Zika, including babies born with abnormally small heads and a paralyzing neurological condition, have been called a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Just a few minutes later, as the question-and-answer portion of the hearing began, Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the committee, quickly invoked Zika again to defend fetal tissue research. She asked Charo to explain “how this could come into play with the Zika virus and research to understand and find a solution to” the virus.

Charo noted that “right now, we are struggling to understand exactly how the Zika virus operates, how it is that it can be transmitted through the placenta to the fetus, how it is that it can affect fetal development at different stages of gestation, and how we can understand what kind of outcomes it will have.”

“We need to actually look at the tissue available after every stage of gestation where there actually has been a termination of pregnancy,” she continued, “whether through miscarriage or through elective abortion.”

Charo said that without such research, “pregnant women will be forced to choose between risking the birth of a child with devastating effects or in fact terminating her pregnancy.”

The irony, she said, was that “the absence of this fetal tissue research might lead to more pregnancy terminations than anybody has every contemplated up until now.”

Schakowsky pressed the point. “So are you saying without fetal tissue research, we can’t really understand the effect on fetuses?”

Charo, while recognizing she was not a scientist, more or less agreed.

“It is very important to study exactly how the virus operates, both at the earliest and latest stages of pregnancy, in order to understand how we might either stop or treat it,” she said, calling that the “global consensus” of the research community.

Implied, if not outright stated, in Charo and Schakowsky’s back-and-forth was that fetal tissue research could be useful in treating Zika — and the long-term hope for that is a vaccine.

The Republican who followed Schakowsky in the question-and-answer session, Representative Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, took clear issue with that notion. He said that a vaccine for Ebola had been developed using monkey tissue — not fetal tissue.

“Looking at modern vaccines, do you see any need for use of fresh aborted fetal tissue?” Pitts asked Dr. Gerald Donovan, a clinical scholar at Georgetown University’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, who spoke against the use of aborted fetal tissue for research.

“There are other means of producing vaccines,” Donovan said, “so there is no need to produce fetal tissue to produce new cell lines for vaccine development.”

Correction: This article originally misidentified Congressman Joe Pitts as Joe Barton.

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