WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced Wednesday that the federal government would sharply curtail federal spending on medical research that uses tissue from aborted fetuses, mainly by ending such research within the National Institutes of Health. The move fulfills a top goal of anti-abortion groups that have lobbied hard for it, but scientists say the tissue is crucial for studies that benefit millions of patients.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it would immediately end a $2 million-a-year contract with the University of California, San Francisco, for research involving fetal tissue from elective abortions; the contract started in 2013. The department also said that based on a review it began last fall, it would discontinue all research within the National Institutes of Health involving fetal tissue from elective abortions.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the department said in a statement. It added that about 200 research projects involving fetal tissue and conducted at universities with N.I.H. grants would be allowed to continue, but that a new ethics advisory board would review each application for grant renewal and recommend whether to continue the funding.
Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor specializing in public health law at Georgetown University, said the new restrictions would “devastate” crucial medical research.
“It will affect everything from cures for cancer and H.I.V. through to Parkinson’s and dementia,” Mr. Gostin said. “The ban on fetal tissue research is akin to a ban on hope for millions of Americans suffering from life threatening and debilitating diseases. It will also severely impact the National Institutes of Health, universities, and other researchers, who will lose key funding for their laboratories and their vital work.”
But anti-abortion groups were quick to applaud the decision.
“Most Americans do not want their tax dollars creating a marketplace for aborted baby body parts which are then implanted into mice and used for experimentation,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life. “This type of research involves the gross violation of basic human rights and certainly the government has no business funding it.”
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, declared, “The government has no business subsidizing researchers that traffic the body parts of aborted babies.”
The Health and Human Services Department announced last September that it would conduct a comprehensive review of research that it funds involving fetal tissue, “to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations.” It cited “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations” and said it would also continue to research alternatives and make sure those alternatives were “funded and accelerated.”
In December, the N.I.H. said it would spend $20 million over the next two years on research seeking alternatives to fetal tissue.
As of last year, the N.I.H. spent about $100 million of its $37 billion annual budget on research projects involving fetal tissue. The tissue is used to test drugs, develop vaccines and study cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, birth defects, blindness and other disorders. For much of that work, scientists say there is no substitute for fetal tissue.
Scientists at U.C.S.F. have been using fetal tissue to create so-called humanized mice — engrafted with the tissue to make them respond more like humans — which can then be used to test drugs and vaccines. But opponents of fetal tissue research say alternatives, such as donated thymus tissue from infants who undergo heart surgery, or adult stem cells, are better.
“There are ample ethically derived sources and alternatives,” said David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony Fund, an anti-abortion group. He called the move by H.H.S. “a good step, but a preliminary step,” adding that he hoped the Trump administration would also end federal funding to all universities for research involving fetal tissue from abortions.
Equity Forward, a watchdog group that promotes abortion rights, questioned why H.H.S. had not made public any results of its review of fetal tissue research. Mary Alice Carter, the group’s executive director, said in a statement that Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, “is putting millions of dollars in lifesaving research at risk to please a small group of anti-abortion extremists.”
“The fact is: there is no scientific reason to endanger this vital research funding,” Ms. Carter said. “Congress should use the power of the purse to put science ahead of ideology and continue funding these vital programs.”