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Our View: Roe reversal hard hit to science

It’s open season on fundamental rights, now that the Supreme Court has reversed Roe v. Wade and other landmark abortion rights cases, despite more than 60% of Americans saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

For those in favor of this ruling, we’re not hearing them cheer on the decision from a constitutional position. Instead, it’s based on religious and moral beliefs. We’ve prayed and lobbied for this for 50 years, they say. As states scramble to regulate or eliminate abortion, we see more fallout to come.

One being, the high court’s decision is disastrous for science.

The vast world of medical research, procedures and the development of critical medicines and vaccines will be severely impacted. This advanced work relies on human fetal tissue.

Fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions is uniquely adaptable and valuable to medical researchers. The tissue has been crucial in understanding normal fetal development and studies of neurological and infectious diseases, including HIV, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's and COVID-19. Common vaccines, such as chicken pox, rubella and shingles, were created using human fetal tissue.

Lawrence Goldstein, a distinguished professor at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, told NPR that because fetal cells are not fully developed, they are useful in, for example, developing replacement organs.

“If you're trying to make a kidney from stem cells, you'd like to know that as the cells begin going down the kidney development path that they're doing it normally," Goldstein said. “Comparison to early fetal kidney cells that are doing it normally tells you that you're on the right track or not."

In 2021, the Biden administration reversed restrictions on fetal tissue research put in place by former President Trump in 2019. In the throes of the pandemic, Trump basically ended highly meritorious research projects that had already been through multiple layers of scientific and ethical reviews.

In March 2020, research institutions and medical foundations appealed to the Trump administration to lift restrictions to enable COVID-19 studies. We can only speculate how many lives may have been saved, schools kept open, and businesses and economies left to thrive if researchers had the opportunity to do the work directly in front of them. The World Health Organization estimates the “number of global deaths attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 alone is at least 3 million.”

After restrictions were lifted, the U.S. National Institutes of Health no longer had to adhere to both a ban on studies and an ethical review from conservative board members opposed to abortion. Proponents of human fetal tissue research argue this endeavor is morally separate from abortion.

Longstanding, required ethical processes were already in place before the Trump administration stacked this board. The board became the place where federal funding applications went to die. Board members prevented work based on religious and moral grounds.

Conservative judges acted in this same way. The dissent opinion (by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) said it plainly: The majority “makes radical change too easy and too fast, based on nothing more than the new views of new judges. The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.”

Giving a subject in a human trial or patient a drug that’s already been tested on human tissue in a Petri dish is less likely to cause harm. This is socially responsible and for the greater good.

Consequences from the reversal of Roe v. Wade will continue to creep into our lives. The hard hit to scientific research is just one of them.