Trump Administration Reviewing Contracts With Fetal-Tissue Providers

By Holly Kellum
Holly Kellum
Holly Kellum
Washington Correspondent
Holly Kellum is a Washington correspondent for NTD. She has worked for NTD on and off since 2012.
September 26, 2018 Updated: September 27, 2018

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it’s reviewing contracts with fetal tissue providers after dropping a contract it had with a California-based provider earlier this week because of sourcing issues.

On Sept. 24, HHS announced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) canceled a contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources, Inc., located in Alameda, California, because it was “not sufficiently assured that the contract included the appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research or met all other procurement requirements.”

The nearly $16,000 contract, awarded in July, was used to “develop testing protocols,” by injecting the tissue into lab mice, according to HHS.  The agency also said it would review all other acquisitions of fetal tissue to ensure they comply with the law, and would be looking into alternatives for research receiving HHS funding.

“In addition, HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved,” the department said in a statement.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) still has contracts this year worth about $103 million for research involving fetal tissue, according to its own database. It’s not clear though how much of that is for the actual purchase of tissue from fetuses.

Earlier this month, 85 House members wrote to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb addressing the agency’s contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources and urging him to cancel it. The company was alleged to be upselling the tissue for profit, which is against federal law, the letter says. It also said the matter was referred to the Department of Justice and the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. The Justice Department did not respond to an inquiry about the investigation. A public information officer for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said he was unable to comment at this time.

“Unborn children are not commodities to be bought and sold,” the letter reads. “The practice of conducting research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion is abhorrent. We urge you to cancel this contract immediately.”

The Abortion Debate

While fetal tissue isn’t necessarily gleaned from aborted fetuses, the majority is, putting it inside the debate over the controversial practice of abortion that has people almost equally divided into “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps.

Those who support using fetal tissue for medical research say that alternatives are limited, and don’t yet provide a complete substitute for the more malleable and adaptable stem cells found in fetuses. Those who oppose the practice say it’s unnecessary and unethical, and that selling aborted fetuses creates an industry around them, instead of putting money toward developing alternatives.

The Trump administration has shown that is squarely in the “pro-life” camp when, shortly after coming into office, President Donald Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits U.S. aid from going to NGOs that perform or advocate for abortion or forced sterilization.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence became the first president and vice president to address the March for Life in Washington this January, and Trump proclaimed Jan. 22 as National Sanctity of Human Life Day.

Shortly before that, HHS announced a new division of Conscience and Religious Freedom within HHS’s Office for Civil Rights to enforce federal laws protecting the right to conscience in health and human services.

“No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement.

Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), a medical doctor and one of the signatories of the letter to Gottlieb, hailed the terminated contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources as a step in the right direction.

“HHS was right to end this contract, and I look forward to seeing the results of its review, so that we can know for certain that none of our federal dollars are going toward this kind of activity,” he said in a Sept. 26 statement.

At least one pro-life organization has challenged the administration to go further, pointing out that HHS still has contracts involving fetal tissue for 2019 worth an estimated $95 million.

“Canceling a single contract and conducting a review is a small step forward, but overall is completely inadequate,”  Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement. “[HHS] Secretary [Alex] Azar must put an immediate moratorium on funding for research using aborted baby organs and tissue purchased from the abortion industry.”

On Sept. 27, this article was updated with a response from the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.

Holly Kellum
Washington Correspondent
Holly Kellum is a Washington correspondent for NTD. She has worked for NTD on and off since 2012.