Since July, an anti-abortion group’s deceptively edited videos targeting Planned Parenthood for allegedly profiting off sales of fetal tissue appear to have prompted at least four arson attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. And even though the allegations were bogus, the vilification of the women’s health organization has done additional damage: Violent threats and a political chill in the wake of the videos have begun to undermine potentially life-saving research on diseases including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. Fetal-tissue donation programs essential to such research have been shut down, supplies of the tissue to labs have dwindled, and legislation is brewing in multiple states that could hinder cutting-edge scientific studies.
“It’s anti-progress,” says Gail Robertson, a veteran researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses cell lines derived from fetal tissue to study heart disease, including sudden cardiac death, the largest cause of natural death in the United States. “We’re in a fight for the future of cures to the diseases that will affect us all.”
Since the 1990s, Robertson and her colleagues have developed pharmaceutical technology using cells from embryonic tissue known as the HEK line—research credited with saving lives from fatal heart disease. “If lawmakers were to say, ‘You can’t use HEK cells because they come from fetal tissue,’ it would be impossible to continue my work in my lab,” Robertson says. “It’s something we use every single day.”
According to Theresa Naluai-Cecchini, a scientist at Birth Defects Research Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, the political controversy has hurt the work at her lab, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health and also supplies other scientific researchers with fetal tissue. “We are in the last year of funding, and if we are unable to supply tissue to the research community we would have to close,” she says. “We may be able to obtain an extension, but the climate in DC does not look favorable in an election cycle.”
Naluai-Cecchini told the Seattle Times that over the past year her lab has distributed 1,109 tissue samples to more than 60 researchers elsewhere who are working on solutions for spinal cord injuries, eye disease, cancer, and HIV. That supply line relies on about two to three samples per day coming into Birth Defects Research Lab, which has long been the lab’s norm. But over the past month, Naluai-Cecchini told Mother Jones, only five specimens in total have come in. If that trend continues, she says, “promising research would stop until a commercial alternative is found. The cost of research would increase dramatically, and new findings would take considerably longer.”