WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday will hold the first in a series of “listening sessions” on the topic of human fetal tissue research, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting.
Friday’s gathering will include “experts from diverse backgrounds,” the agency said in an email obtained by STAT, and will include testimony from multiple researchers. The scientists will be asked to state their rationale for using fetal tissue in their work, as well as to discuss potential research alternatives “that do not utilize fetal tissues obtained through elective abortion” or that avoid the use of such tissue entirely.
The meeting is the latest step in a department-wide audit of how the federal government procures fetal tissue for medical research and testing. That review was announced in September, alongside the termination of a contract between the Food and Drug Administration and a company that had provided fetal tissue for use developing testing protocols.
In the email, HHS said the FDA contract was terminated “in response to expressions of concern over the use of fetal tissue in the development of mice with a humanized immune system,” and that the broader review had also been prompted by concerns expressed about research at the National Institutes of Health.
Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman, confirmed the agency was holding a series of meetings on the topic, which will feature “scientists, pro-life groups, ethicists” and other stakeholders.
The effort is being spearheaded by agency officials including Brett Giroir and Paula Stannard, two top advisers to health secretary Alex Azar, and will include NIH representatives, sources familiar with the meetings said.
Fetal tissue has long been a divisive issue in Washington, with many Republicans opposing its use in research on the grounds that it promotes abortion and is disrespectful to human life. Democrats and scientists have defended the practice by highlighting the biomedical research fetal tissue use enables — and the stringent regulations for scientists hoping to use the material.
The new audit will examine fetal tissue procured by the FDA and the NIH, where it is used to conduct research in disciplines ranging from infectious diseases to human development. In 2016, the NIH funded roughly $103 million worth of research that uses fetal tissue, though the vast majority of that money was not directly used to purchase the material.
The audit is seen by some sources familiar with the process as a sincere effort to review whether HHS could use less fetal tissue in research without compromising the quality of research the agency funds — as opposed to simply a political statement to assuage the concerns of conservative activists.
Political conservatives have long made the topic of fetal tissue research a contentious topic in Washington — and many of those conservatives have filled key health policy positions in the Trump administration. Perhaps most prominently, Katy Talento, a member of the Domestic Policy Council focused on health policy, has argued in conservative publications that some forms of birth control can end pregnancies or cause infertility, claims unsupported by science.
In September, when HHS canceled the FDA contract, the agency said in a statement it was not assured that the contractor had complied with certain procurement requirements, and that it would audit other contracts through the lens of the “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.”
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List slammed the department’s decision to cancel an FDA contract as “completely inadequate” in a statement at the time, saying instead that Azar should place an immediate moratorium on all research that uses fetal tissue.
In 2016, a Republican-controlled House empaneled a select committee after videos — later found to be misleadingly edited — were released by anti-abortion activists who falsely claimed that Planned Parenthood had turned a profit by selling fetal tissue to research groups. Democrats categorized the committee’s efforts as a “witch hunt,” and while Planned Parenthood was cleared of wrongdoing in a dozen state-level investigations, the GOP committee still recommended the health provider be stripped of eligibility for federal dollars.
A draft 2018 spending plan passed by a House committee would have prohibited federal funds from being used for fetal tissue research, though the proposal was not taken up by the Senate and did not become law. Forty Republican lawmakers in 2017 also urged the White House not to retain Francis Collins as the NIH’s director — to no avail — citing his support for embryonic stem cell research.
Current law prohibits federal funding for research that destroys human embryos, but courts have held that the NIH’s use of embryonic stem cells does not violate that statute.