Health officials worry as Michigan GOP ties COVID funding to abortion debate

LANSING — Michigan House Republicans last week voted to authorize $22.6 million in federal funding for vaccine distribution but included an unusual caveat: Health providers would be required to inform recipients if the vaccine was developed using “aborted fetal tissue.”

The language highlights ethical concerns often raised by religious groups opposed to abortion about medical research. Such “informed consent” wouldn’t be necessary for the two vaccines currently available in the United States, but experts fear it would sow confusion and deter residents from getting inoculated.

Pharmaceutical companies sometimes use what are called “fetal tissue lines” to develop, test or produce vaccines. The cells used in modern research do not come directly from a fetus but are dervied from tissue obtained during voluntary abortion decades earlier. 

Right to Life and other anti-abortion groups have pushed “informed consent” vaccine laws for years, arguing recipients deserve the right to know whether there is any connection to abortion, however remote. 

“It’s no different than the objection to using any body part from someone who was killed,” said  Genevieve Marnon of Right to Life Michigan, which supports the measure.

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“We don’t do that, ethically, in America. We don’t kill people that then utilize their body parts, and that’s exactly what’s going on with these aborted fetal cell lines.”

Critics, however, fear the effort could feed the so-called anti-vaxxer movement and sow doubt at a time when Michigan’s vaccine rollout is recovering from a slow debut. 

So far, 1.2 million vaccines have been administered statewide. Michigan now ranks 20th nationally in vaccination rates, up from 45th in early January.

“There are a lot of people who have a lot of very strong and sincere beliefs about this, but I think there is also a lot of rumor and misplaced concern here,” said Jeffrey Byrnes, a medical ethicist and professor at Grand Valley State University. 

The bill’s sponsor, House Appropriations Chairman Thomas Albert, said the language would not apply to Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines already in wide distribution. 

While those companies reportedly used fetal tissue to test their vaccines, they did not use fetal tissue to develop or produce the shots, he said Wednesday during committee debate.

However, the “informed consent” language could apply to a handful of other COVID-19 vaccines that are in development but not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A vaccine candidate developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, for instance, reportedly uses HEK293 fetal clone cells during development and production.

Albert, the budget committee chairman, ”wanted to provide a simple disclosure for anyone receiving the vaccine who may want to be informed about how it was developed,”Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesperson for House Republicans, told Bridge Michigan.

Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, tried but failed to have the fetal tissue provision stripped from the bill in committee, accusing Republicans of trying to force an “unnecessary notification during such a critical time which the state is working to ramp up our vaccination efforts.”

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is unlikely to sign the House GOP spending plan should it pass the Michigan Senate because it also seeks to limit the state’s authority to close schools or cancel sports in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Selective concern?

Regardless, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services opposes the vaccination language, according to spokesperson Bob Wheaton, who said the state is “doing whatever we can to get as many COVID-19 vaccines in arms as quickly as we can.”

While fetal cell lines were not used to produce Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, the health department is “concerned this legislation could confuse the public and cause some Michiganders to forgo the COVID-19 vaccine based on misconceptions,” he told Bridge.

It’s not the first time Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have pushed fetal tissue “informed consent” laws for vaccines, but previous efforts had largely focused on childhood immunizations.

In 2018, a group of six lawmakers, including now-Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, introduced a proposal that would have required health care providers to notify prospective recipients or their parents if an “immunizing agent was derived from aborted fetal tissue” and offer them an alternative if available.

“The hallmark of all medical ethics is informed consent,” said Marnon of Right to Life Michigan. “You can’t have real consent if you don’t have information.”

But Byrnes, the Grand Valley ethicist, said the GOP is being “selective” in its concerns. If lawmakers were really worried about the morality of cell lines they could just as easily object to the use of HeLa cells, he said, which are derived from tissue taken without consent from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman on her deathbed in 1951, and are now widely used in biological research.

Bishops weigh in

Fetal tissue has been at the center of an unexpected ethical debate during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel last fall spoke out against a recommendation by President Donald Trump’s administration to withhold federal funding for fetal tissue research. She noted that Trump had been treated for COVID-19 with Remdesivir, a drug she said was also developed through fetal tissue research.

Pfizer and Moderna used tissue cells derived from fetal lines to perform “confirmation tests” to ensure the vaccines worked, according to medical experts. Those cells, known as the HEK293 line, are descended from an elective abortion that took place in the Netherlands in 1973. 

They’ve been multiplied many times since, creating cell lines that health experts say have no connection to more recent abortions. 

Michigan’s seven Catholic bishops issued a joint statement in December declaring the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “morally permissible” despite the confirmation testing.

“This connection to the abortion is very remote … and it is important to keep in mind that there are varying levels of responsibility,” the bishops said. 

“Greater moral responsibility lies with the researchers than with those who receive the vaccine.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not yet available in the United States, is “more morally problematic,” they added, suggesting Catholics should only accept the shot “if there are no other alternatives.”