Secular groups ask FDA to ignore theocrats in coronavirus vaccine research

Prominent secular groups, led by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, are asking the Food and Drug Administration to disregard a theocratic plea for limiting COVID-19 vaccine research.

In their letter of April 17, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Religious Right groups and various anti-abortion advocates have irresponsibly called upon the FDA to “incentivize pharmaceutical companies” not to use embryonic stem cells in developing a vaccine.

“We urge the FDA to reject the unscientific assertions of the bishops and to ensure that Americans will have access to the highest quality vaccines that untrammeled research can produce,” FFRF, the Secular Coalition for America, Center for Inquiry, American Humanist Association and American Atheists write to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn.

The organizations start off by objecting to the inflammatory rhetoric employed by the religious groups, which deceptively expresses concern about “cells of aborted babies” being used to develop a hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine. “‘Aborted babies’ is an oxymoron, as abortion termination involves zygotes, embryos and fetuses, not ‘babies,’” the letter states.

And the letter strenuously disagrees that it is “ethical” to restrict vaccine research to cell lines not derived from embryos. It quotes a prescient Lancet editorial from June 2019: “Fetal tissue research, in fact, holds the potential to save lives through the development of new treatments and vaccines. Politicizing scientific research [by deceptively conflating the use of fetal tissue with killing human babies] means denying hope to millions of patients with life-limiting diseases.

The secular groups also take issue with the bishops’ assertion that “cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available” as though these cell lines are of equal value for vaccine development. As the Lancet editorial noted: “Although research into fetal tissue alternatives is worthwhile, it will take time and until then, the use of fetal tissue is essential so that research efforts . . . are not severely hampered.”

The Trump administration’s previous attempts to pander to theocrats by putting constraints on stem-cell research have received pushback from the medical community. The American Thoracic Society issued a statement following the Trump administration’s decision last June to impose restrictions on governmental funding for research with fetal tissue from elective abortions: “Scientific research with fetal tissue is vital for the development of new treatments for many deadly diseases and conditions.” And over 70 major medical organizations and institutions, including the Association of American Medical Colleges and many leading universities, signed a letter to President Trump in December 2018 stating: “Fetal tissue research improves human health and saves lives.”

The American public resounding takes the opposite stance on stem cell research from that of theocrats attempting to influence the Trump administration. According to the most recent Gallup poll in 2019, 64 percent of respondents support embryonic stem cell research.

And, of course, as the secular organizations remind the FDA commissioner, Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. Abortion procedures are legal. Embryonic or fetal tissue from abortions would otherwise be discarded.

“As the development of vaccines for COVID-19 and other preventable diseases is imperative to the health and well-being of Americans, we ask the FDA not to allow unscientific religious ideology to interfere with open scientific inquiry into all available lines of relevant research,” the letter concludes.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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