In a country where science is a battleground, Alzheimer’s research might seem like a rare haven from controversy. Yet for scientists like Dr. Lawrence Goldstein at the University of California, San Diego, who uses fetal tissue for his research on the brain and on spinal cord injury, such scientific inquiry is increasingly threatened—often literally. “We are cautious,” he says. “We’ve raised physical security in our laboratory building.”
A new report published by the Guttmacher Institute states that research using fetal tissue—from studies of human development to research on immunology—may be endangered by last summer’s smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. After an anti-abortion organization released videos portraying Planned Parenthood as callously haggling the price of aborted fetuses, legislators have attempted to restrict research using such material, while scientists have found their work limited and riskier. “Beyond the attacks on Planned Parenthood,” the report says, “the use of fetal tissue in research also is under direct attack.”
Researchers have relied on fetal tissue for scientific work since the 1930s, according to the report. Fetal tissue used for research is derived from abortion because tissue from miscarriage is often not suitable for research. Cell cultures from fetal tissue have been used to develop vaccines for measles, polio and tetanus, among other diseases. Scientists at Colorado State have been conducting HIV research using fetal tissue, while at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, cell culture derived from fetal tissue has been central to work on Hepatitis B and C. The National Institutes of Health awarded grants for 164 research projects using fetal tissue in 2014, according to a survey by Nature. “Today, fetal tissue is being used in the development of vaccines against Ebola and HIV, the study of human development, and efforts to treat and cure conditions and diseases that afflict millions of Americans,” the report states.
Theresa Naluai-Cecchini, a scientist at the University of Washington told Mother Jones last October that the number of tissue donations had dropped dramatically. She worried that if the trend continued, “promising research would stop until a commercial alternative is found. The cost of research would increase dramatically, and new findings would take considerably longer.”
Bills introduced on both the state and federal level would make it more difficult to donate tissue or use fetal tissue in research, according to the report. Some would ban fetal tissue research outright. Forty-six bills have been introduced in twenty states since the videos, according to Elizabeth Nash, Senior State Issues Associate in Guttmacher’s DC office. (Five states already have laws that ban research using fetal tissue obtained from abortions, according to Guttmacher.)