Heidi Ganahl, in her capacity as a regent of the University of Colorado, proposed a resolution during last week’s Board of Regents meeting to encourage the university to strengthen its policies and practices in order to ensure that aborted human fetal tissue is never used for research purposes. 

Ganahl is competing against former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez for the Republican nomination for governor. Both Ganahl and Lopez have expressed anti-abortion sentiments and come out against Colorado’s Reproductive Health Equity Act, which enshrines the right to an abortion under Colorado law. Lopez said survivors of sexual assault who become pregnant as a result should “really evaluate how this might change for the positive.

During a June 8 appearance on Ross Kaminsky’s KHOW radio show, Ganahl disclosed her position on abortion. “I’m pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest, health of the mother and health of the fetus,” she said.

Ganahl also supports the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “I want Roe v. Wade repealed and I want the states to decide,” she said during a June 2 appearance on Dan Caplis’s show (at 24 min). “And the first thing we’ve got to do is, however, possible as governor, I need to rip up that disgusting abortion bill that was passed recently and protect the unborn.”

Ganahl’s recent resolution for the CU Board of Regents is likely an attempt to shore up her anti-abortion bonafides with voters before this month’s primary election. Controversies over the use of fetal stem cells in medical research have been a major talking point for anti-abortion activists since the 2015 release of a heavily edited series of videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood representatives illegally selling fetal tissue. Two activists with the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress were charged with 15 felonies in connection with the videos, but that did not stop the ensuing anti-abortion backlash.

“CU Anschutz does, on occasion, use embryonic stem cells in research,” said Michael Sandler, CU’s vice president for communications, in an email. “Usually the embryonic stem cells utilized are from the NIH [National Institutes of Health] stem cell registry.”

The University of Colorado took action regarding the use of human fetal tissue in research in 2016, at the behest of conservative regent Sue Sharkey. The current policy that went into effect in 2016 requires that “Research involving HFT shall be conducted only in accordance with any applicable federal, and state laws and regulations regarding such activities. In addition, all research involving HFT or collaborations with external third parties that involves obtaining, procuring, collecting, storing, or using HFT must be reviewed by the appropriate research committee which may include the Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board (COMIRB), Institutional Animal Use and Care Committee (IACUC), Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), and/or the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus Scientific Ethics Committee.”

According to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, “Because it is not as developed as adult tissue and is able to adapt to new environments, fetal tissue is critical to the study of a wide variety of diseases and medical conditions, according to the American Society for Cell Biology. Researchers use fetal tissue—and cell cultures derived from such tissue, which can be maintained in a laboratory environment for decades—to study fundamental biological processes and fetal development. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fetal tissue continues to be an important resource for researchers studying degenerative eye disease, human development disorders such as Down syndrome, and early brain development (relevant to understanding the causes of autism and schizophrenia).”

In 2018, Donald Trump’s administration banned the acquisition of human fetal tissue for research conducted by scientists employed by the NIH, and in 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would no longer allow government scientists working for the NIH to conduct studies that use fetal tissue. Joe Biden’s administration overturned those restrictions in 2021. According to the Guttmacher Institute, five states have outright bans on the use of human fetal tissue in research.

Photo courtesy Guttmacher Institute.

“Researchers generally avoid using embryonic stem cells for research purposes whenever practical alternatives exist,” said Sandler. “However, there may be unique features of a particular research project that require their use. The inability to use embryonic stem cells in these specific cases could impede scientific discovery.”

Ganahl discussed her stance on the use of fetal tissue during a May appearance on Kim Monson’s radio show. “A few years ago several of us regents rolled up our sleeves and did what we could to stop this,” she said. “This is disgusting and I do not support it, but this is a federal issue. The regents can only do so much. This is regarding federal grants. So we need our congressional reps to step up and help me with this issue. Lauren [Boebert] and Doug [Lamborn] and Ken [Buck]. And, you know, I’ve worked hard to do everything I can as a regent to stop this, but now we’ve got to go to the federal folks and see if they can do their work, because I’ve reached the end of the road. I’ve done as much as I can, but I have asked CU to put together a commission to study alternatives to this practice, which I can do as a regent. And we’ll put that through committee over the next few months, and then it’ll hopefully come to a vote in front of the regent board soon.”

According to Sandler, Ganahl has not moved the draft resolution forward for a vote. Ganahl’s campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.