WASHINGTON — When anti-abortion demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands join the March for Life, an anti-abortion protest set to take place Friday on the National Mall here, many will tout signs bearing a new slogan: “Pro-life is pro-science.”
Much of the country’s mainstream scientific community would argue the opposite.
In recent months, anti-abortion advocates have advocated for the cancellation of a federal research contract for fetal tissue procurement and pushed to halt other research they view as immoral. The results: a $2 million project to test HIV drugs derailed and another pair of studies, including one to develop cancer immunotherapies, left in limbo. The movement’s latest objective: to force President Trump to fire the renowned director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, the country’s top biomedical research scientist.
“The segment of the community that’s against this type of the research has been there all along, but it’s just emboldened by this administration,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist who uses fetal cells in his research. “This sort of thing has a chilling effect.”
The backers of the March for Life — along with other advocates who support similar anti-abortion causes — argue that their work is in fact “pro-science,” as their slogan confirms.
“Science needs to be at the service of life,” Jeanne Mancini, the March for Life president, told STAT in an interview, arguing that research involving human fetal tissue or embryonic stem cells falls short of that goal.
That tension — over what, exactly, “pro-science” policymaking looks like — will come to a head Friday, as the March for Life winds its way past Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court. With top administration officials in attendance and a flurry of conservative media coverage, it is anti-abortion advocates’ best opportunity yet to lay out their vision for a new scientific agenda under President Trump: one that would see the $103 million the NIH spends on research involving fetal tissue reallocated and Francis Collins dismissed.
The scientific spotlight being employed by this year’s March for Life is a relatively new emphasis for pro-life groups, and one that the anti-abortion movement has made far more explicit in 2019. The group has pushed to include science education in its programming, highlighting that human beings are genetically “unique from day one” — they pinpoint that as the moment that sperm fertilizes an egg — and touting scientific advances in ultrasonography that allow expecting parents to identify human features in fetuses earlier than ever.
One promotional music video released ahead of the March for Life even laments the “60 million unborn babies aborted since Roe v. Wade” as “60 million cures for diseases that could have been made” — highlighting that every human, a spokesperson said, could hold the potential to cure cancer.
Mancini, the March for Life’s president, said the event has long toyed with a scientific focus. With technological advances, genetic testing kits available for $99, and controversial fetal tissue research in the news, she said, 2019 felt like a logical choice — and an opportunity to push a scientific agenda that opposes use of fetal tissue regardless of the scientific cost.
“Science itself can sometimes exploit a human person,” Mancini said. “The situation at NIH with Dr. Collins and using the human person in some of this HIV/AIDS research — science is not at the service of life, in those categories.”
But some researchers say that anti-abortion advocates’ steadfast — and increasingly vocal — opposition to fetal tissue research doesn’t support their “pro-science” slogan. Moreover, they’re concerned that the opposition might derail the U.S. government’s support for pivotal science.
“I’m worried that the federal government will be hijacked by a vocal minority to cease supporting a valuable area,” Goldstein, the neuroscientist, said.
And some doctors and scientists push back against the idea that their first priority is anything but the lives of their patients and those affected by the diseases they are studying. The argument that fetal tissue research or abortion itself is disrespectful of human life, they say, misrepresents their work.
“I think that all scientists consider themselves very pro-life. We believe very strongly in supporting the woman in front of us, and making sure she lives her longest, best life,” said Dr. Sarah Horvath, an OB-GYN who works on abortion policy with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Francis Collins, the NIH director, wasn’t always the face of this controversy — at least as it plays out in Washington.
On a Wednesday morning in January 2017, Collins boarded a Vamoose bus in Bethesda, Md., for a nearly five-hour trek to Manhattan, a $40 round trip with a decidedly higher-end destination. At Trump Tower, Collins sat with the president-elect and several top advisers to his transition team, including future White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, controversial tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
During the interview, nobody raised any issues related to either fetal tissue research or embryonic stem cells, according to a Trump administration source. For an incoming Republican government, it was a remarkable omission — embryonic stem cells were the defining scientific controversy of the George W. Bush era, when the president sharply limited use of the cells and was publicly criticized by his own NIH director, Elias Zerhouni.
Two years into the Trump administration, however, the anti-abortion movement has transformed a scientific non-issue into a highly publicized controversy.
Either by coordinated influence campaign or by sheer coincidence — it is unclear which — the first skirmish came in September, when the Food and Drug Administration cancelled a contract with Advanced Biosciences Resources, a California company that provides fetal tissue to federally contracted researchers.
The company was a familiar one to conservative activists. Four years ago, it was the target of a sting video operation by a right-wing citizen journalist group that attempted, with no success, to prove that Planned Parenthood was engaged in a criminal enterprise to sell fetal tissue for profit.
In September, with Advanced Biosciences Resources suddenly back in the news, anti-abortion groups pressured HHS to re-examine fetal tissue use in research, leading the department to hold “listening sessions” that included both anti-abortion activists and scientists who use fetal tissue in their labs. Given the irregularities the department found in the ABR contract, health secretary Alex Azar ordered a top-to-bottom examination of the practice — a tremendous undertaking given the $103 million in research grants awarded to projects that use human fetal tissue. (Only a small fraction of that money is spent on acquiring fetal tissue — which cannot be sold for profit.)
Later that month, the Trump administration ordered staff scientists at the NIH to stop procuring new fetal tissue for experiments, affecting a handful of labs and disrupting a study on how HIV infects human tissues that was taking place at an NIH lab in Montana. The lab’s scientists were collaborating with researchers at the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research to test a promising antibody on those mice when the fetal tissue freeze was issued.
“The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated,” researcher Warner Greene of the Gladstone Center told ScienceInsider in December.
The freeze has also threatened to hamper work at an NIH lab conducting cancer research, and an NIH spokesperson told STAT in December that a National Eye Institute lab that depends on fetal tissue had enough frozen tissue to continue work through the end of February.
Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman, countered that no research had been impacted, save for a “miscommunication” with a research project in Montana and another NIH project that was extended on a temporary 90-day basis instead of a typical yearlong renewal. She said HHS would work with any researchers needing to procure tissue and other materials for their work while the audit continues.
The political fallout, however, was immediate: Republicans on the House Oversight Committee called a hearing on exploring alternatives to use of fetal tissue in research. Two of the three witnesses called by the committee’s Republican majority worked for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the scientific arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group.
The meeting highlighted a partisan divide on Capitol Hill, where several dozen Republicans have openly criticized Collins or the NIH.
“Francis Collins, time and time again, advocates for positions that are contrary to what the president believes,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who in 2017 gathered 39 signatures for a letter encouraging White House to seek new leadership at NIH, told STAT. “I believe that if this issue rose to his attention, he might become more aware of the contrast between his beliefs and Francis Collins’s beliefs.”
Trump, in fact, said he was “very pro-choice” in 1999. But he has aligned himself with anti-abortion groups since his campaign, during which he suggested women who obtain abortions should face “some form of punishment.”
Though the Trump administration has given no indication it is considering replacing Collins, many advocates remain focused on ousting him for his values. In December, anti-abortion groups including the March for Life, Susan B. Anthony List, and Students For Life called for Trump to fire him.
The effort is a full-circle twist for the NIH director, a physician-geneticist and born-again Christian whose appointment in 2009 generated criticism from researchers that he was the “antithesis of the scientific.” Collins is now popular among most lawmakers and scientists alike, and his religion is rarely discussed.
Oakley reiterated to STAT that the administration does not “conduct performance reviews in the press.” The White House did not respond to STAT’s request for comment regarding the 2017 Trump Tower meeting, the president’s stance on use of human fetal tissue in research, and whether Trump would consider firing Collins.
“Dr. Collins sounds like a phenomenal person — I’ve never met him before,” Mancini, the March for Life president, said. “But in terms of his understanding of embryonic stem cells, and of fetal tissue research … it’s not that he’s anti-science, but he’s got some things that I find very ethically questionable.”
Fetal tissue is valuable in research for the same reason it has drawn attacks from anti-abortion activists for years: It is procured from abortions. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have permitted federal funding for fetal tissue research for years — but opponents of fetal tissue research would like to see that money funneled elsewhere.
“That money going from the NIH [to fetal tissue research] could fund a lot of studies and frankly a lot of clinical trials instead of fetal tissue studies,” said David Prentice, the research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute and one of the scientific community’s most prominent critics of fetal tissue research.
“There are a lot of pro-life scientists that agree with the statements that I’ve been making, but many of them are hesitant to make public statements, simply because of potential bias and blowback that they receive,” he said.
At a congressional hearing last month, Prentice told lawmakers there’s “no scientific necessity” for taxpayers to keep funding fetal tissue research. He and other opponents to fetal tissue research say there are promising alternatives ready to take its place. Among them: adult stem cells, organoids, and humanized mouse models engineered with neonatal tissue.
“I think there are valid scientific reasons to go with these alternatives,” Prentice said. To an extent, other scientists do agree: They support alternatives that are cheaper, easier to manufacture, and that might make it easier for scientists in different labs to collaborate — if they work as well.
Prentice also argued fetal tissue research has “never really panned out” in terms of treatments or contributions to basic science.
Many scientists disagree — and will rattle off the areas where fetal tissue has been critical to discovery.
“Research with fetal tissue has improved millions of lives through the development of vaccines against polio, rubella, measles, chickenpox, adenovirus, rabies; and treatments for debilitating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia,” said Dr. Ross McKinney, the chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Scientists who convened at the NIH last month to talk about the issue came to that same conclusion: “Major scientific advances” have been made with the help of humanized mouse models created using fetal tissue.
“It doesn’t seem to me there’s any reason at present to stop that [research],” said Goldstein, the UCSD neuroscientist. “If you have fetal tissue in front of you and the choice is discard as medical waste or use for research, I’d argue the use for research option is the appropriate option.”
The NIH, which recently announced up to $20 million in funding for research into fetal tissue alternatives, pointed to organoids, stem cells, and humanized mice as some of the ideas worth exploring — many of the same alternatives Prentice advocated before Congress.
The studies funded by the NIH will build on decades of research into alternatives. As new models are developed, experts say some might need to be tested against fetal tissue to determine whether they’re an effective replacement. The scientists at last month’s NIH workshop concluded that mouse models made with fetal tissue “remain the ‘gold standard’ to which other model systems should be compared.” (Prentice, for his part, said those comparisons “don’t need to be made anymore.”)
But as of now, most experts agree there aren’t existing alternatives that can serve all the same functions as fetal tissue.
“There may be a day in the distant future where fetal tissue won’t be necessary,” said Goldstein, “but for now, and for the near future, fetal tissue has a vital role to play in medical research.”