AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Fetal tissue is uniquely valuable to medical researchers. It can be used to develop treatments and to better understand diseases like HIV, Parkinson's and COVID-19. Many anti-abortion rights activists oppose this research on moral or religious grounds. In 2019, former President Trump put new restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in projects funded by the federal government. Well, now the secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra says he is reversing those policies. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following all of this and joins us now. Hey, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So, first of all, what is fetal tissue research? And why do scientists say it's necessary for medical research?
MCCAMMON: Well, fetal tissue is uniquely adaptable, and so it's useful for a lot of different types of scientific inquiry. Lawrence Goldstein is a professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. And he says because these cells are not fully developed, they can be useful for a lot of things like trying to develop replacement organs.
LAWRENCE GOLDSTEIN: So, for example, if you're trying to make a kidney from stem cells, you'd like to know that as the cells begin going down the kidney development path, that they're doing it normally. And so comparison to early fetal kidney cells that are doing it normally tells you that you're on the right track or not.
MCCAMMON: Now, this tissue is often obtained from abortions. There are ethical requirements for that. Patients have to understand what they're doing and consent to it. Doctors involved have to attest that they obtained consent to collect the tissue after a woman had already decided to have an abortion. But people opposed to abortion rights also often oppose this kind of research. And social conservatives, of course, held a lot of influence during the Trump administration.
CHANG: And what was the Trump policy? Like, what exactly is changing now?
MCCAMMON: Yeah, the Trump administration took a couple of actions a couple of years ago, Ailsa. The first was to ban NIH funding for what's known as intramural research - essentially just programs within the agency - that involved newly obtained fetal tissue from abortions, from more recent abortions. The other step was a requirement that external applicants for NIH funds who wanted to use fetal tissue would have to go through a new ethics advisory board review process. Now, that board was convened by the Trump administration, and most of the members were publicly opposed to abortion rights. Lawrence Goldstein, who we heard from earlier, was on that board, although he was in the minority in terms of his support for fetal tissue research. And here's how he described it.
GOLDSTEIN: It was an incredibly unpleasant experience because highly meritorious research projects that had already been through multiple layers of review, both scientifically and ethically, went to this board to be killed.
MCCAMMON: So, as you might imagine, he's pleased to see the Biden administration doing away with that process and overturning these Trump policies.
CHANG: Sure. Well, if the opposition to fetal tissue research comes mainly from abortion rights opponents, what are they saying today about this latest development?
MCCAMMON: In a statement today, Marjorie Dannenfelser with the Susan B. Anthony List said the decision will, quote, "force Americans to be complicit in barbaric experiments." She also called it another step toward reversing what she describes as pro-life progress during the Trump and Pence administration. And this is part of something larger. The anti-abortion rights movement is on the losing side of a lot of policy battles at the federal level these days. Just this week, the Biden administration announced it would reverse changes to the Title X family planning program that had effectively cut funding to groups like Planned Parenthood. And the administration is taking other steps like that to reverse Trump policies.
CHANG: That is NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon. Thank you, Sarah.
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