Earlier this month, Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, visited South America, where he touted the work the United States has done to halt the spread of diseases in the region. Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, highlighted the importance of vaccines in preventing the spread of diseases like measles and diphtheria.
He was right. The United States has played a leading role in disease prevention research and has funded programs that have undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of people in South America and beyond.
But the same week Azar that was praising U.S.-driven health care successes abroad, he put the scientific advances of tomorrow at risk by prioritizing a far-right political ideology ahead of evidence and the health of the public.
Before Azar left for South America, he received a sternly worded letter from nearly four dozen anti-abortion health groups calling on him to end federal funding for any research that uses fetal tissue. The co-signers of the letter include the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that is comfortable promoting the work of the man who originated the idea that a woman’s body protects her from getting pregnant after rape, and the Family Research Council, an organization that calls same-sex relationships “unnatural.”
Azar quickly caved to the pressure from these out-of-touch extremists and abruptly cancelled a long-standing contract with a fetal tissue provider while also announcing “a comprehensive review” of all fetal tissue research and procurement.
HHS has since refused to provide information on how many government contracts or research projects it plans to review, or how long the so-called inquiry is expected to take. HHS is calling this an audit, but in actuality it will damage, delay, and possibly end invaluable research — just because a small group of vocal ideologues oppose it.
What does this have to do with Azar’s South America trip and statements?
Fetal tissue research is at the heart of the public health successes Azar was lauding. According to Reuters, Azar said that “we want to ensure that these individuals are vaccinated, that they get the care that they need, because we of course don’t want measles to become endemic in the Western Hemisphere again.”
Fetal tissue research was used to develop the rubella vaccine, part of the MMR vaccination that also protects against measles, an advancement which the World Health Organization credits with saving more than 17 million lives since 2000. Researchers are currently using fetal tissue to develop cures to devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, and Zika, another vaccine-in-research that Azar touted on his trip.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the two decades from 1994 to 2013, vaccines developed from fetal tissue research prevented 322 million illnesses, 732,000 premature deaths, and saved $1.38 trillion dollars. Fetal tissue had also been used well before the mid-1990s and was integral to the development of the polio vaccine, a disease which has been nearly eradicated.
The fetal tissue used to develop these lifesaving advances is usually obtained from women having abortions. For decades, women who have decided to end their pregnancies have also made the benevolent and thoughtful decision to donate fetal tissue in the hopes that medical research can find cures for diseases that affect young and old alike.
This compassionate choice now hangs in the balance because a few small but vocal special interest groups oppose abortion in all circumstances — a view that is out of step with the majority of Americans — and are using their political influence to pressure Azar to end research that is both ethical and important.
The mission of HHS is “to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans.” By kowtowing to ideologues fixated on interfering with our most personal, private decisions, Azar is failing to live up to the mission of the agency he runs.
This decision won’t come as much of a surprise to those who’ve been watching Azar and other appointees of President Trump at HHS radically alter our nation’s health programs, dismantling them to align with a narrow anti-abortion ideology instead of following science, evidence, and what is best for the health of women and families. If HHS continues to bend to this small group, whose goal is to criminalize and end access to safe, legal abortion, vital research that helps millions of people around the globe will come to a screeching halt.
Azar must stand with science. One the one hand, a coalition of 64 medical organizations and universities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and Harvard University, have called for preserving funding for fetal tissue research. On the other hand, a loose confederacy of organizations that aligns itself with the notion that women’s bodies have magical prophylactic properties that “shut down” to prevent pregnancy during a sexual assault wants fetal tissue research banned.
Azar needs to stand with scientists over political special interests and abandon this extreme ideology, which will only hurt millions of people around the globe.
Mary Alice Carter is the executive director of Equity Forward.