By Julia Kagan
Just under 37 million people worldwide are HIV positive, and the toll on the LGBTQ+ community is disproportionate to that of the general public. The odds of living with a positive diagnosis for transgender women can be up to 49 times that of someone in the general population, and gay/bisexual men make up 55 percent of all people living with HIV in this country.
However, paired with adequate leadership and funding through the 80s and 90s, scientists demonstrated that they are more than capable of finding solutions for people living with HIV through well-funded research efforts. These days, those efforts are under attack.
In an absurd and counterproductive move, the Trump Administration changed a policy to halt the use of fetal tissue at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and prevent new federal grants from funding future research projects using fetal tissue. This action appeared to be directed at HIV research, as the proclamation was part of an announcement that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was canceling a grant to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that used fetal tissue to study new HIV treatments. According to the HIV Medicine Association, this action “represents a resolute rejection of science” by limiting the use of a research model considered to be a gold standard by the medical community at large.
The halt of major HIV studies due to the ban on fetal tissue research is also an attack against the LGBTQ community. While unsurprising given the administration’s overall hostility toward queer people, which have included, but are not limited to: the appointment of anti-LGBTQ judges, banning transgender people from serving in the military, and a rollback on Obama-era healthcare discriminiation policies.
The Scientific Integrity Act, if passed, would prevent religious beliefs from stifling scientific development, in stating that “science, the scientific process, and the communication of science should be free from politics, ideology, and financial conflicts of interest.” This provision would protect life-saving research and ultimately send the message that scientific research (including HIV research) is a priority that should not be stifled by religious qualms using fetal tissue.
When scientific development is stifled by personal ideology, we all pay the price. While the ban on fetal tissue research clearly impacted HIV research, the reality is that fetal tissue research is also currently used to develop treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. Historically, fetal tissue has also been used to develop therapies and prevention methods for polio, measles, chicken pox, rubella, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The Scientific Integrity Act is revolutionary, but it’s also ridiculous that we are living in a time where it’s needed. These days, it’s necessary to legally mandate agency heads and government leaders to honor basic, accurate facts rather than ideas that are just convenient for a policy agenda.
Last week, former Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman wrote an opinion piece alongside Ken Kimmel, president of the Union for Concerned Scientists, advocating on behalf of the bill. Even though this piece of legislation is far from partisan and has received praise from prominent members from major parties since its introduction, its 183 cosponsors are all Democrats.
As hearings for the Scientific Integrity Act begin this week, we call on Congress to act like responsible public servants, affirm the value of rigorous scientific study, and improve the lives of constituents by governing according to the facts.
Julia Kagan is the Summer 2019 Communications Intern.