EDITORIAL: Ban on fetal tissue research ignores tremendous benefits to health care

Past presidents let doctors drive the agenda — and as a result, health care for serious illnesses has improved. But President Trump has made a political decision to severely restrict taxpayer-funded fetal tissue research.

President Donald Trump

President Trump recently announced restrictions on government funded research involving fetal tissue.

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Scientists for decades have conducted important medical research using fetal tissue, and the benefits to health care are clear.

Life-saving vaccines have been developed for rubella, rabies and other diseases. Treatments for cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, ALS — commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — cancer and spinal cord injuries have emerged or are on the horizon.

These advances in medical care happened under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Past presidents — including the Bushes — let science drive the agenda. And as a result, health care for serious illnesses has improved.

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But last week, President Trump made a political decision to severely restrict taxpayer-funded fetal tissue research. His aim is to placate abortion opponents, whose votes and support he needs. The president’s decision puts them a step closer to their ultimate goal of banning such research altogether because it uses tissue from elective abortions.

So much for improving health care.

Particularly endangered will be research on HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, though this president once pledged to “end the HIV epidemic.”

Already, an HIV-related study at the University of California in San Francisco has been shut down. Other NIH projects will face extra, unwarranted hurdles to renew existing grants or apply for new funding. In addition to the normal, rigorous scientific scrutiny, these projects will have to pass muster with an ethics board that includes a theologian.

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Opponents of fetal tissue research suggest that scientists can use alternatives. Yet researchers say there is no feasible substitute in some cases, such as with studies on HIV, the Zika virus — which can cause birth defects — Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

The Zika virus, for example, is capable of moving from a pregnant mother’s bloodstream across the placenta, which protects and nourishes the fetus, and into the brain of the fetus. The best way to study that process is with first-term human placenta tissue. Placentas from lab animals, such as monkeys, are too dissimilar.

Trump’s decision won’t affect privately funded research. But doctors rightly fear the chilling effect.

So should all of us.

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