The Trump administration is opening "a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue" and canceling a contract that conservative lawmakers said supported "research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion."
Fetal tissue is a modern equivalent of the stem cell research question that confronted Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama: how to balance ethical and moral questions about life, health, abortion and emerging science aimed at addressing stubborn medical issues.
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The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement it "is now conducting an audit of all acquisitions involving human fetal tissue to ensure conformity with procurement and human fetal tissue research laws and regulations." The review will consider "the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved."
Fetal tissue is generally obtained through abortions, and is used to develop cells that "mimic many of the properties that they have in a living body, and therefore can be used as a model for researchers studying basic biological processes," according to a Congressional Research Service report from 2015.
The National Institutes of Health now spends around $100 million a year on research involving human fetal tissue, government data shows.
The issue was brought to the fore in recent months by a comparatively small contract for fetal tissue the Food and Drug Administration announced in June. It planned to purchase around $16,000 of "human fetal tissue" for tests to determine how humans might respond to medications.
"Fresh human tissues are required for implantation into severely immune-compromised mice to create chimeric animals that have a human immune system," FDA said at the time. "This human immune system allows us to test biological drug products for safety and efficacy."
The organization contracted to provide the fetal tissue, Advanced Bioscience Resources, did not return a call from CNN seeking comment Tuesday morning.
Human tissue was required, FDA said, for testing drugs that only work on humans.
More than 80 House Republicans wrote a letter to the FDA earlier this month calling for the cancellation of the contract.
"Unborn children are not commodities to be bought and sold," they wrote. "The practice of conducting research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion is abhorrent."
The move did not satisfy the Susan B. Anthony List, a high-profile group that opposes abortion and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle to support and oppose candidates.
"Canceling a single contract and conducting a review is a small step forward, but overall is completely inadequate," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group's president.
Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocate for science steering public policy, said reviews like the one HHS is conducting can have a "really chilling effect."
He voiced concern that scientists conducting "critically important research" will be put under the type of scrutiny that makes their universities or other institutions nervous about funding their work.
Bush handled controversial but promising research involving stem cells, which generally involved the cells of embryos rather than fetuses, with a compromise that allowed federal funding of research using cells that existed at the time. He also publicly called for the use of alternatives.
The HHS statement said the administration will push for alternatives to fetal tissue research be "funded and accelerated."