The F.D.A. replied in July with a statement saying the tissue was obtained legally and ethically, used in a small fraction of its total research and “has been used in situations where it is critical to understanding how the human immune system responds to certain drugs and biologics.”
But in September, a coalition of anti-abortion groups wrote to H.H.S. Secretary Alex Azar to denounce the contract, saying, “It is completely unacceptable to discover that the F.D.A. is using federal tax dollars and fomenting demand for human body parts taken from babies who are aborted.”
Around the same time, 85 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, head of the F.D.A., stating: “Unborn children are not commodities to be bought and sold. The practice of conducting research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion is abhorrent.”
On the other side, 64 academic and medical organizations weighed in with a letter to leaders of the House and Senate defending the research. That group included Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and other major universities, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Fetal tissue research has been critical for scientific and medical advances that have saved the lives of millions of people, including the development of vaccines against polio, rubella, measles, chickenpox, adenovirus, rabies, and treatments for debilitating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia,” the group said in its letter.
The letter added that the tissue had also been crucial in developing treatments for H.I.V. infection and for studying how the Zika virus causes brain damage in developing fetuses. And, the letter said, “cells in fetal tissue have unique and valuable properties that often cannot be replaced by other cell types.”
Miscarriages are not a suitable source of the tissue, the letter said, because some involve genetic abnormalities that would interfere with research, and because miscarriages occur in circumstances that would make it hard to collect the tissue.
On Sept. 24, the H.H.S. announced that the contract had been canceled, and that its broad review of the research would begin.