President Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra sidestepped a question about the University of Pittsburgh while defending fetal tissue research during a congressional hearing last week.
Rep. Chris Jacobs, R-N.Y., had mentioned allegations that the university may have illegally altered abortions or obtained tissue from live fetuses. “If the tissue being used for this research was derived from babies who were born alive and then killed by organ or tissue harvesting, would that be a violation of law?” Jacobs asked.
Becerra gave a more general response that didn’t directly address allegations at Pitt. “There are absolutely standards that have been set for the use of fetal tissue. There are laws in place to make sure we’re protecting the practice of securing that fetal tissue,” he answered. “And I think all of us understand, are very mindful of the importance of making sure we are doing this the right way.”
“Fetal tissue has been instrumental in helping so many Americans find life-saving treatment and we have to make sure we are respectful of the standards that are in place,” Becerra continued, adding that HHS needed to ensure that no taxpayer dollars were used “in ways that are not appropriate under the law.”
Pitt’s Experiments on Aborted Babies
Becerra’s comments come as his department faces multiple inquiries and scrutiny over what has been portrayed as grotesque experiments with fetal tissue. Pitt, for example, came under fire for a federally funded research program, in which it sought to create a “pipeline” for organs that could be used for research. Multiple physicians also told Fox News that Pitt’s statements indicated that organs might have been extracted from live fetuses.
In a statement to me on Thursday, Jacobs said: “I am staunchly pro-life. The reports of organ harvesting the National Institutes of Health received are incredibly disturbing. Taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to fund abortions, and they certainly should not be used for something as reprehensible as organ harvesting from babies able to survive outside womb. I will continue to dig into these reports and I [am] committed to holding anyone who violates federal law in such a disturbing way accountable.”
Becerra’s department has responded to congressional scrutiny with very little information. As I previously reported, a February letter from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which received Pitt’s funding request, deferred to a highly criticized investigation commissioned by the university. That investigation did not look into the practices of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a source for Pitt’s fetal tissue bank.
Senate Pro-Life Caucus Chair Steve Daines, R-Mont., derided NIH’s response as “extremely concerning and completely unacceptable” and the investigative findings by the law firm Pitt commissioned as “woefully inadequate.”
“Rather than conducting its own investigation, the Biden administration has chosen to rely on a woefully inadequate outside report paid for by Pitt,” he told me. “This report fails to address our concerns that Pitt’s research may have involved fetal tissue harvested from babies who were born alive or where the abortion methods were altered.”
Pitt has denied any wrongdoing and maintains that it doesn’t participate in medical procedures. Regardless, it could lose state funding over the controversy. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, some state Republicans are reconsidering their support for Pitt funding with at least one – state Rep. Matt Dowling – citing that research as an issue.
What Kind of ‘Fetal Tissue’ Research Is HHS Funding?
The controversy about Pitt’s and other such research has reinvigorated the debate over the scientific use of fetal tissue, which receives millions in funding from Becerra’s department. According to findings from the White Coat Waste Project, NIH “is funding $27 million in studies marked for use of fetal tissue” and is expected to spend $88 million on similar research in fiscal year 2022.
In the hearing last week, Jacobs asked Becerra if he could name any clinical treatments that use fetal tissue. Becerra responded by citing a research effort in his home state of California, but didn’t name any particular treatments.
“Coming from California where we actually passed an initiative – statewide initiative – that provided monies to set up a center to do the research and help promote this within the private sector so we could harness the energies and the science, I am more than willing to provide you any number of studies, any number of examples of how fetal tissue has not only been lifesaving but has promoted the well-being of so many Americans who otherwise would not have any other method for their treatment,” he said.
“Thank you,” Jacobs responded, “because we were not able to find a single development even though it’s [fetal tissue] been used for research since the 1920s.”
It’s unclear what exactly Becerra was referring to, but Dr. David Prentice, who leads research for the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, said Thursday that the health official mistakenly referenced a stem cell research program, which is different from a fetal tissue program.
“It’s telling that Secretary Becerra was unable to immediately name a single treatment using fetal tissue, though not surprising — there are none,” he said. “In fact, no clinical trials transplanting fetal tissue have been funded by HHS since 2003, according to the HHS own reports to Congress.”
“Mr. Becerra was also confused about research in his own state,” Prentice continued. “The ‘center’ Mr. Becerra referred to, set up in California, is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and it funds stem cell research, both embryonic and adult stem cells, not fetal tissue.”
Prentice and Jacobs were referring to fetal tissue transplants in humans for clinical trials, which is distinct from the type of fetal tissue research currently receiving millions in federal funding from NIH. HHS did not immediately respond to my request for comment.