The irony cannot be missed: A Rose Garden event to announce the nomination of a Supreme Court justice widely expected to tilt the court toward limiting access to abortion became a super-spreader event for coronavirus, which infected many of the dignitaries gathered there. And the “miracle cure” touted by the president himself was made possible in some way by the scientific use of aborted fetal tissue.
Since the announcement that President Donald Trump was treated with an experimental cocktail of drugs that he said has made him feel better than he has in 20 years, attention has increasingly focused on how one of those treatments — a cocktail of antibodies manufactured by Regeneron — was developed and tested. And the same may be true for the other drug used on Trump and other coronavirus patients, Remdesivir.
Two ironic facts have risen to the surface and have been confirmed by multiple sources, however: (1) The new molecular treatment was developed and/or tested in some way involving cells originally derived from an aborted fetus; and (2) the very kind of research that made this therapy possible was shut down by the Trump administration within the past year.
The very kind of research that made this therapy possible was shut down by the Trump administration within the past year.
Critics cite these facts as evidence of hypocrisy by abortion opponents who for years have lambasted stem cell research as barbaric and immoral but now are willing to laud a miracle drug made possible by that very research.
On the other hand, some “pro-life” advocates dispute the actual use of aborted cells in the research or claim the original cells were obtained so long ago that there is no moral jeopardy in the modern drug.
One Dallas-based medical ethicist noted privately: “I understand that many vaccines in the past included a cell line derived from the lung tissue of aborted fetuses, but I have also read that the cell line is either so attenuated or even absent that even the Catholic Church has withdrawn its objections.”
And therein lies the nuance of this situation.
What’s the true story?
Amid these competing claims — and an effort by Regeneron to carefully thread the needle of disclosure — the MIT Technology Review published an article Oct. 7 by Antonio Regalado that minced no words:
This week, President Donald Trump extolled the cutting-edge coronavirus treatments he received as “miracles coming down from God.” If that’s true, then God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue.
The MIT article continues to explain that the antibody treatment Trump received “was developed with the use of a cell line originally derived from abortion tissue, according to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the experimental drug.”
And here’s where things get quite technical.
According to the MIT journal and other published sources, the molecules in the treatment Trump received “are manufactured in cells from a hamster’s ovary … not in human cells.” However, “cells originally derived from a fetus were used in another way. According to Regeneron, laboratory tests used to assess the potency of its antibodies employed a standardized supply of cells …, whose origin was kidney tissue from an abortion in the Netherlands in the 1970s.”
These cells have been “immortalized,” which means they have been reproduced, divided and shared many times through the years, so that the line of cells used today is, in a way, a descendant of the original cells obtained from the aborted kidney tissue.
“Because the … cells were acquired so long ago, and have lived so long in the laboratory, they are no longer thought of as involving abortion politics.”
Thus the MIT journal concludes: “The two antibodies Regeneron eventually put forward as an experimental treatment, which may have saved Trump’s life, would have been selected using exactly such tests. Because the … cells were acquired so long ago, and have lived so long in the laboratory, they are no longer thought of as involving abortion politics.”
In June 2019, the Trump administration blocked federal funding for new scientific research using fetal tissue derived from abortions.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
And then this important line: “Intramural research that requires new acquisition of fetal tissue from elective abortions will not be conducted.”
The Trump administration policy — hailed widely as a victory for the anti-abortion cause — restricted new acquisition of fetal tissue.
The New York Times quoted an administration official who said the president’s acceptance of this coronavirus treatment should not be seen as a contradiction. “The administration’s policy on fetal tissue research ‘specifically excluded’ cell lines made before June 2019, said the official, who did not wish to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the matter. Scientific products made using cell lines that existed before then ‘would not implicate the administration’s policy on the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions,’ the official said.”
The fact that most anti-abortion advocates have remained silent about this apparent contradiction also was addressed by the MIT journal: “Most likely, their hypocrisy was unwitting. Many types of medical and vaccine research employ supplies of cells originally acquired from abortion tissue. It would have taken an expert to realize that was the case with Trump’s treatment.”
The 2019 ban
In June 2019, the journal Nature reported on the Trump administration’s ban on fetal-tissue research that receives federal funding, especially through the National Institutes of Health.
“Scientists employ fetal tissue to explore topics as diverse as infectious disease, human development and disorders of the eye.”
“The administration said … it will set up an ethics-review board to evaluate each NIH grant application that would support research with fetal tissue, which is collected from elective abortions. But the government has already decided against renewing its contract with a laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, that uses fetal tissue to study HIV,” Nature reported. “The announcement comes after a sustained push by abortion opponents to limit scientific research with fetal tissue — despite warnings from researchers that using the tissue is the only way to study some health problems. Scientists employ fetal tissue to explore topics as diverse as infectious disease, human development and disorders of the eye.”
The journal quoted UCSF chancellor Sam Hawgood saying this government decision was “politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science. Today’s action ends a 30-year partnership with the NIH to use specially designed models that could be developed only through the use of fetal tissue to find a cure for HIV.”
The New York Times reported that the ethics board set up to review proposed uses of fetal stem cells in research met for the first time in July and in August, “the board rejected 13 of the 14 proposals it reviewed; the approved proposal relied on tissue that had already been acquired.”
What’s next with vaccines?
The ethical debate over this kind of research is not going away and, in fact, could escalate as work continues on COVID-19 vaccines.
The New York Times quoted David Prentice, vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, who wrote in September: “One concern regarding the ethical assessment of viral vaccine candidates is the potential use of abortion-derived cell lines in the development, production or testing.”
Prentice’s own analysis found 13 vaccine candidates that rely in some way on fetal cell lines.
In response, the Times quoted James Sherley, a research scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and director of the adult stem cell company Asymmetrex, who said this kind of research is “not morally responsible. There are alternatives — there are lots of ways that don’t require the death of anyone.”