Undercover videos purporting to expose the illegal sale of human fetal tissue surfaced in July, prompting anti-abortion Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn to launch a public health investigation into Colorado State University’s use of fetal tissue in medical research. Last week, the university agreed to put its nationally funded research seeking a natural treatment for HIV on hold pending investigations.
Earlier in July, the Congressman wrote a letter to CSU president Tony Frank requesting an explanation of the university’s “acquisition of aborted babies’ body parts for experimentation or for other purposes.” Regardless of whether the practice actually violates any laws, Lamborn, whose office declined to comment on this article, called on CSU to immediately put an end to such research.
“The callous barbarism of selling aborted babies’ body parts should have no place in our society,” he said in a statement accompanying the letter on his website. “Because of my grave concerns, I alerted Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.”
In response, Coffman thanked Lamborn for forwarding her the letter to Tony Frank, indicating she’s been following the matter closely. Enforcement of the statute falls under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, she wrote Lamborn, and passed his request along.
CDPHE has opened a complaint investigation.
Meanwhile, the CSU president responded to Lamborn. As “a leader in the ethical conduct of research,” Frank said the university welcomes the opportunity to provide transparency “as we navigate the ethical waters associated with several research areas.”
He explained that CSU had one research project that used human fetal tissue — an investigation into a cure for HIV funded by the National Institutes for Health. The study used small cellular samples extracted from liver and thymus tissue provided by StemExpress, one of the vendors accused of having illegal transactions with Planned Parenthood.
“We do not obtain or use full organs or body parts in this research program,” Frank wrote, “although we can understand how someone could mistakenly reach that conclusion based on the wording of the StemExpress invoices in question.”
The university is in full compliance with the law. according to Frank, but nonetheless convened its Bioethics Advisory Committee to look into the matter.
A memo from the committee stated the 15 plus year study involved turning fetal tissue into stem cells to induce a human-like immune system in an immunodeficient mouse.
“The research has produced significant results regarding HIV infection, pathogenesis, and treatments,” and has resulted in many publications important to the scientific community, the memo stated. Over the years, the university has welcomed federal sponsors from NIH to ensure the research complies with the law. Because vendors are responsible for the actual procurement, CSU is not privy to whether the tissues they use come from induced abortions.
Ultimately, the committee recommended that “CSU suspend acquisition of fetal tissue from StemExpress or any other vendor in question with Planned Parenthood until the congressional investigations are concluded” and that “all efforts … be made to seek alternatives to aborted fetal tissue sources where such alternatives allow key research discoveries to proceed.”
So that’s what the university will do, Frank wrote.
Lamborn, on his part, said that “these steps are definitely headed in the right direction. However, they simply aren’t far enough.” The Congressman called on Frank to commit to ending the use of fetal tissue in research once and for all.
Professor Thomas Campbell, a doctor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver is concerned that CSU, an academic institution, would cave to political pressure. Research using stem cells from fetal tissue is not new, he said. “For the university to shut it down now just because an influential politician is complaining, that’s the only thing that’s new.”
There are already drugs out there that can keep an HIV infection at bay, but they come with long-term side effects like high cholesterol, fat accumulation, impaired kidney function and reduced bone density. So the next step in the field is to find an effective treatment without harmful side effects, and that’s exactly what CSU researchers are working on.
Campbell called the mouse model, in which scientists use stem cells to induce a human-like immune system in mice, “an innovative and futuristic approach to treating HIV. It doesn’t require drugs, like someone taking a pill, but rather modifies someone’s stem cells to make them naturally resistant.”
“All this is going to do is put faculty at a disadvantage,” Campbell said, “and potentially take CSU off the map of AIDS research.”
CSU faculty can’t comment on the situation because of the ongoing CDPHE investigation, according to the university’s public affairs and communications director Mike Hooker.
Now, Lamborn is looking beyond just CSU. He said Frank’s response “contained another troubling fact.” The university also contracted with another vendor wrapped up in the crusade against Planned Parenthood — Advanced Bioscience Resources.
“Revelations such as this highlight the murky underworld of suspect organizations, legal loopholes, and dubious ethics involving the use of fetal tissue,” Lamborn said. “That’s why, later this week, I will be introducing legislation designed to end this barbaric practice once and for all.”
Last week, the congressman introduced the “End Trafficking of the Terminated Unborn Act of 2015” to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would prohibit any transfer of human fetal tissue for any purpose other than disposal “if the donation affects interstate commerce and the tissue will be or is obtained pursuant to an induced abortion.”
The commercial sale of human fetal tissue is already illegal under federal law, and donation of aborted fetuses for scientific research only happens with the explicit consent of the patient.
Lamborn’s bill would also remove the authority to fund research using tissue from an induced abortion, though tissue obtained from a miscarriage or stillbirth with consent would still be fair game.
The legislation will be in the hands of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when the chamber reconvenes in September.
The choice to donate fetal tissue to science is one many women face.
The Guttmacher Institute estimated that nearly 30 percent of American women will have an abortion before the age of 40, and depending on the clinic, they’ll have the option to donate the aborted fetal tissue to medical research. Donation always requires informed consent.
Fetal tissue is used to find cures for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and muscular dystrophy, in addition to HIV.
“What this practice is doing is saving lives,” said NARAL Pro-Choice political director Gena Ozols. “If a woman who decides to get an abortion is comforted to know she’s donating to lifesaving research, that’s wonderful.”
Ozols pointed to the consistent failure of so-called personhood measures designed to outlaw abortion. Anti-abortion conservatives “have been like a dog with a bone,” she said. “They won’t give it up. They don’t care about the will of voters.”
It may be that voters in Lamborn’s definitively conservative district in Colorado Springs elected him to take staunch anti-abortion stances like this. But Ozol said this recent crusade has troubling consequences.
“He’s not doing anything to help the people of Colorado by attempting to stop life saving research.”
Photo by Freier Denker, Creative Commons, via WikiMedia.