Fetal Tissue Research: FAQ

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on September 29, 2015

Sept. 29, 2015 -- Although fetal tissue research has made headlines in recent months, the controversy about it is nothing new.

Used in scientific studies since the 1930s, the tissue comes from induced abortions and miscarriages that would otherwise be discarded, according to the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Fetal tissue research is legal in the United States. The Reagan administration in 1988 ordered an end to federal funding of this research. But in 1993, Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, which formalized President Bill Clinton’s lifting of the moratorium.

State and local governments can enact their own laws governing fetal tissue research. Indiana, Ohio, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota ban studies involving tissue from aborted fetuses, and several other states are considering restricting or banning it, says Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Anti-abortion groups and lawmakers say that scientists have tools other than fetal tissue with which to answer important questions.

WebMD asked brain researchers Anita Bhattacharyya, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jorge Busciglio, PhD, of the University of California-Irvine, about using fetal tissue in scientific research.

Q. How do scientists obtain fetal tissue?

A. According to federal law, a woman must give written consent to donate fetal tissue, and only after she has requested an abortion. Paying for anything beyond “reasonable” costs related to obtaining fetal tissue is illegal. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) coordinates a network of six fetal brain and tissue repositories across the country. The NIH brain bank supplies tissue to qualified researchers who apply for it.

Q. Why do scientists use it in research?

A. Fetal tissue is being used to develop and test vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS, the flu, dengue fever, and hepatitis B and C. Also, scientists are using this tissue to understand a variety of diseases and health conditions, including vision problems, Parkinson’s disease, and miscarriage.

Bhattacharyya does research into Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome, conditions that impact IQ. “For Down syndrome specifically, animals aren’t very good,” because their brains and chromosomes are so different from humans’, she says.

Busciglio studies cells called human cortical neurons, a particular type of brain cell that is affected in Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. The simplest way to obtain human cortical neurons is from fetal brain samples, he says. “It’s really critical to do some of these experiments in these types of cells,” Busciglio says. “If we don’t have these cells, we don’t have our answer.”

Another research area using the tissue is miscarriage, Bhattacharyya says. Like Down syndrome, miscarriage can’t be studied in animals, she says.

Q. Could researchers use other types of cells, such as adult stem cells, instead of cells from fetal tissue?

A. In fiscal year 2016, which begins Thursday, the NIH estimates that its funding for research involving human fetal tissue will total about $77 million, far less than the nearly $3 billion it plans to spend on all types of stem cell research.

Fetal tissue represents “a much smaller part of my research than it used to, but it’s still critical,” Bhattacharyya says. Instead, she uses a type of stem cell, called pluripotent stem cells, to create brain cells.

Although the stem cells are promising, Busciglio says he is not sure they can replace fetal tissue in the same way.

Not all researchers agree, however, that fetal tissue cells are necessary for research; some feel strongly that it isn't. 

Q. What medical advancements have happened as a result of fetal tissue research?

A. This tissue has helped to develop vaccines for a wide range of diseases, including polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A and B, shingles and rabies.

Show Sources


Anita Bhattacharyya, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jorge Busciglio, PhD, of the University of California-Irvine.

Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher Institute.

American Society for Cell Biology: “FAQs on Fetal Tissue Research.”

Indiana Code Section 16-34-2-6.

Ohio Revised Code Section 2919.14.

2015 Wisconsin Senate Bill 260.

2015 California Assembly Bill 12.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Use of fetal tissue is unethical and unnecessary," Sept. 10, 2015 “Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC).”

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