Amid all the exaggerated claims, fact-checking, and outright denial surrounding the allegation that medications used to treat President Donald Trump's Covid-19 illness are made from the tissue of aborted fetuses, some inconvenient truths emerge:
- First, cells from an aborted fetus were indeed used during the development of two of the drugs administered to Trump.
- Second—and arguably more importantly—the president's enthusiastic embrace of those drugs to save his own life starkly contradicts his administration's aggressive obstruction of fetal cell research, policies and actions which impede scientific advances that could save countless lives.
Trump has hailed his medications—Regeneron's monoclonal antibody cocktail and Gilead's antiviral Remdesivir—as "miracles coming down from God."
A MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT! pic.twitter.com/uhLIcknAjT
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
However, the development of both of those drugs involved something that is anathema to millions of Trump's anti-choice supporters: the abortion of a human fetus.
As Science explains:
Although the monoclonal antibodies infused into Trump were not made from or in fetal cells, Regeneron did develop that treatment with the help of a long-lived line of cells established from the kidneys of a fetus electively aborted in the Netherlands around 1972. The company relied on those widely used cells, known HEK-293 cells, to make mimics of the coronavirus spike protein. Researchers used these proteins to test the potency of antibodies found in Covid-19 patients or made in mice with a humanlike immune system.
The antiviral drug Remdesivir, which Trump took last week, was also developed with those same cell lines. The New York Times reports at least two other pharmaceutical companies working on a coronavirus vaccine—Moderna and AstraZeneca—also rely on the cells, and Johnson & Johnson is testing its vaccine using another cell line derived from fetal tissue.
Because those cells "were acquired so long ago, and have lived so long in the laboratory, they are no longer thought of as involving abortion politics," asserts MIT Technology Review.
However, there is no denying their ultimate provenance, despite the selective and even downright false reporting by right-wing media.
Even a doctor from the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute—which pro-Trump media are citing to refute the claim that the drugs are developed from fetal cells—last month expressed "concern regarding the ethical assessment of viral vaccine candidates... [using] abortion-derived cell lines in the development, production or testing," while publishing an infographic (pdf) directly linking aborted fetuses to potential Covid-19 vaccines.
Lost by some observers amid the debate surrounding the drugs' origins is the fact that the president apparently did not think twice about turning to drugs derived from fetal cells when his own life was on the line, even as his administration aggressively opposes reproductive rights—and the very research that led to the drugs that may have saved him, and could save many others in the future.
The Trump administration has looked to curtail research with fetal cells. But when it was life or death for the president, no one objected.https://t.co/6SMBGydlp3
— Minh Ngo (@minhtngo) October 8, 2020
In 2019, the administration ended nearly all federal funding for new scientific research using cells or tissue obtained from aborted fetuses, with the Department of Health and Human Services explaining that "promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's administration."
Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board has been "stacked with people who are known to oppose use of tissue from induced abortions, regardless of the scientific necessity," according to lawyer and bioethicist R. Alta Charo.
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Critics say the administration's policy is blocking critical biomedical research that could lead to cures or better treatments of some of humanity's deadliest afflictions.
"The use of... human fetal tissue cells has led to immense medical breakthroughs, including the development of vaccines for polio, measles, and rubella, and improved understanding and treatment for Parkinson's disease, cystic fibrosis, Ebola, HIV, Zika, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other disorders," Robert Klitzman, director of the masters in bioethics program at Columbia University, wrote last year.
"HHS is prioritizing political considerations instead of listening to its scientists, and since there is no alternative to the use of fetal tissue in research, HHS is threatening the lives of people who rely on this research for their very survival."
—Union of Concerned Scientists
However, "Trump... has thwarted any such future scientific advances by placing an additional layer of scrutiny on NIH research proposals that would use these cells," Klitzman added.
Doug Melton, co-director of Harvard's Stem Cell Institute and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, told the Associated Press last year that crucial clinical trials using fetal tissue cells "to treat conditions including Parkinson's Disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and spinal cord injury" were underway.
The Union of Concerned Scientists was more blunt in its reaction to the ban:
There was no scientific rationale for this decision. The banning of fetal tissue research was done for wholly political reasons, and the effects could be disastrous—scientific labs could close, cutting-edge drug treatment and HIV research could be permanently stalled, and life-saving medical treatments could be delayed or never come to fruition.
In its statement, the HHS affirmed the Trump administration's dedication to "promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death." However, by restricting scientists' ability to utilize the unique properties of fetal tissue, the administration is doing the opposite: it is threatening the lives of countless people who would benefit from new treatments for HIV, Alzheimer's, and other diseases.
Despite its comments to the contrary, HHS is prioritizing political considerations instead of listening to its scientists, and since there is no alternative to the use of fetal tissue in research, HHS is threatening the lives of people who rely on this research for their very survival.
While some supporters are now defending Trump by noting that the 2019 policy excludes cell lines created before that time, many scientists and doctors are accusing the president of double standards.
President Donald Trump owes his life to a woman who donated her fetal tissue for medical research after having an abortion.
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) October 8, 2020
HYPOCRISY—Two of 3 key drugs Trump used to “cure” himself—monoclonal antibodies and Remdesivir—were developed from fetal cell lines that would be blocked today under Trump WH’s 2019 imposed ban. Doesn’t stop Trump naturally. The hypocrisy is deep. #COVID19 https://t.co/mtuWbhVlme
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) October 9, 2020
"It's blatant hypocrisy," Lawrence Goldstein, a senior faculty member at the University of California at San Diego who has used fetal tissue in his research, told the Washington Post. Goldstein accused many opponents of fetal cell research of "looking the other way" in the case of Trump's use of drugs that involved fetal tissue in their development.
Dr. Deepak Srivastava, a pediatric cardiologist who led the International Society for Stem Cell Research until July, told the New York Times that if administration officials including the president oppose the research, "they should be willing to not take a drug that was developed using that."