WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee’s draft 2018 spending plan would prohibit federal funds from being spent on research that uses fetal tissue, a symbolic win for conservatives who are also taking aim at money for family planning and public health programs around the country.
The proposal from the House Appropriations health subcommittee is unlikely to be enacted, and the restriction would impact a tiny portion of the National Institutes of Health’s roughly $33 billion budget — in 2016, the agency spent roughly $103 million on research involving fetal tissue.
But the subcommittee’s plan underlines continued opposition among some Republican lawmakers to the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research.
“The ethical use of fetal tissue is aiding scientists in exploring the fundamental causes of and potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, blindness, spinal cord injuries, stroke, and ALS,” Darrell G. Kirch, the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote in a statement, calling the restrictions “arbitrary.”
Much of the controversy surrounding research involving fetal tissue stems from a series of 2015 videos created by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group that released edited footage of Planned Parenthood employees allegedly admitting to selling fetal tissue derived from abortion procedures for a profit. Those videos resulted in the creation of a select House panel to examine the practice, which issued a 471-page report recommending the funding prohibition that the subcommittee has now officially proposed.
“I’m pretty sure [Democrats] will move next week to strip it out of the bill,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who cited the report in advocating for stronger ethical protections for fetal tissue treatment.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, called the move “ideological.”
“There are restrictions around the use of fetal tissue,” DeLauro said. “We abide by those. But the science — there are not scientists here [in Congress]. We are not.”
But even if requirements for procurement of fetal tissue are made more stringent, Harris — a former NIH-funded researcher — said he was not convinced an ethical system could be created.
The bill also proposes deep cuts to funding for a number of health agencies: $198 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $306 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and $398 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the bulk of which is the elimination of the Title X family planning funding.
In a win for research advocates, however, the plan includes a $1.1 billion funding increase for the NIH, including added money for Alzheimer’s research and the Precision Medicine Initiative. Many of the allocations represent a middle ground between current funding levels and steeper funding reductions proposed by President Trump.
“I look at this as the opening position,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the subcommittee’s chair. “And I hope as we work through — we have to work with the allocation we have, which is $5 billion less than last year — that we can plug some holes and make some improvements.”
The subcommittee’s budget proposal, as Cole suggested, is largely symbolic. Most members of Congress are already resigned to a continuing resolution that would extend funding roughly at current levels — any holistic budget package would require bipartisan support in the Senate, an unlikely prospect for a bill that cuts family planning funding.
If enacted, the bill would eliminate funding for Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which this year allowed for $286.5 million in appropriations. The program, which subsidizes family planning care largely for lower-income women, accounts for roughly 10 percent of family planning expenditures nationwide.
Some recipients of those funds are Planned Parenthood facilities, but the vast majority are community health centers — which House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has suggested should receive the bulk of funds that currently go to Planned Parenthood.
The subcommittee advanced the bill to the full Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and the full committee markup will likely occur next week.