Activist state

How Fetal Tissue Research Became the Center of a State’s Budget Deadlock

A years-long dispute between anti-abortion activists and University of Pittsburgh researchers over fetal tissue research reached the highest levels of state government this year and briefly stalled the state’s budget. 42 billion dollars from Pennsylvania.

The budget impasse was partly the result of an amendment passed by GOP members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last month that would have required the University of Pittsburgh to cease all research involving fetal tissue. If the university did not meet this requirement, it would have lost approximately $150 million in tuition assistance for students in the state.

Pitt declined to make anyone available for an interview, but the university notes on his website that it complies with stringent federal and state laws in this area, and that its scientists have used fetal tissue to study treatments “for HIV, AIDS and cancer. For example, by learning how the placenta protects the fetus from viral infections, researchers are able to keep more mothers and their babies healthy and safe.

The amendment to suspend tuition assistance was defeated on Wednesday. Although nearly a week into the state’s new fiscal year, Pennsylvania is still operating without a budget. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, would certainly have vetoed the measure had it passed, said J. Wesley Leckrone, associate dean of social sciences and Pennsylvania policy expert at Widener University.

“With deer just got overthrown, there was no way the governor would back down on that,” he said.

Most Republicans were also bound to reject the effort, Leckrone said, in an election year when parents are worried about the price of tuition.

“If there’s anything social conservatives can gain from this,” he said, “I don’t know what it is.”

Across the country, the use of fetal tissue for scientific research is relatively rare. A study of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a nonprofit that opposes abortion, found 144 research projects using fetal tissue in 2019 that were funded with $109 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. The overall NIH budget for annual research is nearly $42 billion, according to the Lozier study.

Since 2001, Pitt has conducted 31 individual research studies using human fetal tissue, according to university figures.

But the decision by several state lawmakers to suspend tuition assistance from a top research institute for fetal tissue research is drawing renewed political attention following the court ruling. Supreme Court of the United States which removes the constitutional right to abortion. Abortion opponents have long opposed the use of fetal tissue removed in elective abortions, arguing that it encourages healthcare providers to perform abortions or that the procedures are inhumane.

State lawmakers considered a similar move in 2019, but Pennsylvania’s budget battle didn’t start with state lawmakers’ attempt to impose a conservative agenda on universities.

It all started with David Daleiden, an anti-abortion activist and founder of a California-based group called the Center for Medical Progress.

Daleiden and members of his group, who call themselves citizen journalists, gained notoriety in 2015 for posing as employees of a fake biomedical company and producing videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials seeking to profit from the sale of aborted fetal tissue.

The videos were widely said to be misleading, and Planned Parenthood filed a civil suit against Daleiden for fraud, illegal recording and civil conspiracy. It was finally awarded over $2 million in a jury trial, according to Reuters. Separately, a federal judge ordered the Center for Medical Progress to pay an additional $13 million, the news service reported. Daleiden appealed both decisions, according to media reports. In 2017, then Attorney General Xavier Becerra of California charged Daleiden and an associate with 15 felony counts for illegally filming healthcare workers in multiple locations.

Despite questions about Daleiden’s methods and credibility, he remained active and influential in opposing fetal tissue research. He also found a new target: the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2019, the Washington Examiner published a Daleiden op-ed that accused the Pitt researchers of carrying out “infanticide” by removing tissue from living infants who might have survived outside the womb.

In May 2021, Daleiden testified at a Pennsylvania House of Representatives Health Committee hearing, repeating these claims and decrying the use of grafted fetal tissue on lab rats.

Daleiden’s group made similar charges against Pitt in August of last year, after securing hundreds of pages of federal research grant applications. Later that year, several members of Congress wrote a letter asking the US Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Pitt’s research involving fetal tissue.

Daleiden could not be reached for comment. The center’s website appears to be unavailable, and an email to the band from their Facebook page went unanswered.

In response to Daleiden’s accusations, Pitt conducted an external review, which concluded that “the university’s activities related to the procurement, disbursement, and use of human fetal tissue in research are in full compliance with applicable laws.”

Arthur L. Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University, said Daleiden’s accusations amplify the emotional response to abortion with exaggerated claims about how tissue is collected and used.

For example, no one takes tissue from a still-living fetus, he said. Nobody uses the idea of ​​medical research to promote abortions, Caplan said, and in his experience, no mother considering an abortion chooses him to help research. Eliminating the ability to collect fetal tissue would most likely have no effect on the number of abortions, he said.

How researchers collect and use tissue from aborted fetuses is already highly regulated, said Caplan, who has written about the policies and ethics guiding fetal tissue research since 1990. The principles guiding these practices are very similar to those used for organ donation, he said, including obtaining consent from the mother first before discussing the possibility of tissue donation. Medical providers also cannot alter the abortion procedure, Caplan said.

“I think adhering to strict limits on how fetal tissue is obtained is important,” Caplan said. But groups like Daleiden’s, he said, are just “throwing loads against the wall to see if anything sticks”.