Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued restrictions on obtaining research grants using “fetal tissue” in order to qualify for federal funding.

It is important to note that “fetal research” is generally research that is performed using living fetuses either inside the uterus (in utero) or outside the uterus (ex utero). However, fetal research can also include embryos, which is the earliest stages after fertilization of an ovum by a sperm. In addition, the techniques can be invasive and noninvasive. Most importantly, the outcome has resulted in improved techniques of both in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, as well as major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions that threaten the survival of fetuses and pregnant women.

On the other hand, “fetal tissue research” involves cells that are removed from dead fetuses to establish, among other purposes, cell lines or for use as transplantation material. These fetal tissue are obtained from an abortion, either elective, induced or spontaneous (natural). When fetal cells are cultured, they grow and multiply in laboratory dishes. These cells are used to test the efficacy of a drug and whether it causes damage to genetic material or to test the impact of infection. Because the cells continue to grow and multiply, a small number of cells can result in a huge quantity and thereby used as a source of more cell lines or for transplants. “Fetal tissue transplantation” has been more controversial because of legal, ethical and social issues, including the ownership of embryos.

In the 1950’s, fetal tissue research and the use of fetal cell lines produced a major medical breakthrough, the development of polio vaccine.  However, the earliest known use of fetal cells for transplantation occurred when a group of physicians transplanted fetal brain cells into a patient with Parkinson’s disease, which is a progressive disease in which cells degenerate and die. Since that time, many of the human experiments have been done outside the United States, seeking to determine whether transplanting fetal cells can reduce the effects of, if not ultimately cure, a variety of diseases, as well as neurological and blood disorders, including diabetes.

These newest restrictions will require all applications and renewals of grants to perform research that involves tissue collected from elective abortions must provide a detailed justification, documenting why no alternative methods could accomplish the same goals.  In addition,  there must be documentary evidence each woman who is involved first gave permission for her aborted fetus to be donated for biomedical research. Furthermore, the restrictions prohibit graduate and postdoctoral students who receive NIH training funds from “proposing fetal tissue research.”

This subject  remains highly controversial.

Opinions are polarized and naturally emotional, they continue to focus on highly charged religious, ethical, legal and social grounds. Those scientists in favor of fewer restrictions on fetal tissue research claim their studies with mice implanted with tissue from aborted fetuses have proven results, helping to better understand certain diseases as well as to develop therapies for cancer, HIV,  Parkinson’s disease, and the Zika virus.

Opponents argue stem cell research will take place on foreign soil if the ability of scientists to obtain NIH funding is limited. Others contend fetal tissue still needs to be harvested since the only way to make a comparative presentation requires a scientist seeking an NIH grant to document the lack of effective alternative research methods.