As of July 1, 2017, Boise State students and faculty are no longer able to use the body, bodily remains or embryonic stem cells of aborted fetuses for research purposes. The inability to experiment on these materials is part of a larger piece of legislation titled the Idaho Unborn Infants Dignity Act (IUIDA), which was passed on April 6, 2017 after being amended from its original version introduced the previous year.
Now, by law, no one in the state of Idaho is able to sell, transfer, distribute, donate, accept, use or attempt to use the body or bodily remains of an aborted infant—except for under certain extenuating circumstances.
According to Research Promotions and Communications Specialist Cienna Madrid, Boise State students and faculty currently do not use fetal bodies. Instead, what is more commonly used is a fetal cell line, known as HEK 293. This is an embryonic kidney cell line, which was generated by a physician over 40 years ago.
On campus, HEK 293 is used for cancer research and is the reason the bill had to be amended from its original version, which prohibited the use of any aborted fetal material by any university, for any purpose. If the bill had continued in its totality, research efforts at universities throughout Idaho would have been stifled.
“When the attorneys, research officers and government affairs people all got together, we determined the language was either gray enough, or perhaps there were unintended consequences that the bill would’ve shut down that research,” said Roger Brown, director of Government Affairs at Boise State.
In turn, the university pushed an effort to adjust the original IUIDA, working closely with those who introduced and sponsored the legislation. Their goal was to prove the use of aborted fetal material at Boise State was legitimate and had educational value worth defending.
“We had an interest in making the case that we were doing good work—we weren’t playing in these dark spaces that were left to anybody’s imagination,” Brown said.
A large part of the original bill dealt with the ethical obtaining, selling and use of unborn bodies and bodily remains, and much of the University’s effort to save the research focused on proving that the usage on campus was morally sound.
“How medical tissue comes to be used in research is important. Somewhere, this need (for material) is divorced from propriety or humanity,” Brown said.
According to Idaho Senator Clifford Bayer, who sponsored the bill in 2016, there have been cases of indecent motivations behind the distribution and use of fetal tissue, the culmination of which helped push the IUIDA to fruition.
“In regards to ethics, you have respectful, properly authorized ways for fetal tissue to be available for legitimate application,” Bayer said. “I draw a line at the possibility of having a skewed motive in the whole abortion arena, which causes ethical concerns.”
After collaboration between lawmakers, higher education teams and anti-abortion advocates throughout the 2017 legislative session, their attempts proved successful, and the bill was amended to allow for the select use of aborted fetal material. In turn, research using HEK 293 is able to continue at colleges throughout Idaho.
“The issue is not fetal tissue and research. It is the nature in which the fetal tissue is originated and researched,” Bayer said. “Fetal tissue is perfectly legal, if done ethically.”
At present, the statute upholds that the only acceptable materials to be used are those that were obtained before July 1, 2016, those that are used for pathological study, or those used for diagnostic or remedial procedures that promote the life or health of the unborn infant or the unborn infant’s mother. Falling under this umbrella of stipulations, HEK 293 remains in use and open for the possibility of further research, as it was received on campus before the July 1 cut-off date.
The modest–yet important–change to the bill’s language has allowed for the continuation of some fetal cell line research efforts around the state of Idaho, while tightening up regulations on the use of unborn infants overall.
“We didn’t want to have an unwitting limitation that would be interpreted as, ‘I can’t help this person or their unborn child because of this act; I can’t intervene,’–that’s not the case,” Bayer said.