Bertagnolli responded by saying the agency has “the greatest responsibility” to make sure “that we serve all people, all walks of life” and that “any research that we do that involves human beings, people, is conducted according to the highest ethical principles so that we make sure that the research is intending to do no harm, to achieve benefit, and is done in ways that have maximum respect for the dignity of people.”
Democrats asked Bertagnolli no questions about gender identity. Only one, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, addressed it, saying in his opening remarks that “LGBTQ people are living in a national state of emergency,” noting the high rate of suicide among “transgender and nonbinary youth.”
Markey expressed support “for essential research in the care” that he said people who identify as transgender “need to make sure that everyone is free to exist as their authentic selves.”
“When elected officials use their bully pulpit to target gender-affirming care or create barriers to evidence-based life-saving treatment and fuel the fire of the youth mental health crisis, this is a driving force in a nationwide campaign of discrimination and it is unacceptable,” Markey said.
Fetal tissue and fetal pain
U.S. Sen. William Cassidy, R-Louisiana, a gastroenterologist and the ranking Republican on the committee, said he met previously with Bertagnolli and discussed “bioethical issues, including fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell research, and the use of hormones and other gender-transition interventions on children,” but that she “at times avoided getting into specifics, citing a lack of expertise.”
Cassidy asked how Bertagnolli would maintain “the Biden administration’s policy … that fetal tissue is only used as a last resort.”
“Understanding the great sensitivity of many people and passionate feelings of many people on the issue of fetal tissue research, I would want to be very respectful of that,” Bertagnolli said.
“We’re trying to cure major diseases,” she said a little later in her response. “That’s our highest goal, but we need to do it with respect.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Budd, R-North Carolina, asked Bertagnolli if she would “commit to requiring NIH contractors and grantees that they explicitly inform mothers that their child will feel pain during an abortion by 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
Bertagnolli didn’t address the substance of the question, focusing instead on fetal tissue research.
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“I believe that the policies and procedures that govern any research with fetal tissues really prohibit any discussion whatsoever with the mother toward even the possible use of such tissue for research. So it would not be acceptable for me to affirm this — that interaction is not allowed to take place,” Bertagnolli responded.
Bertagnolli, who is in her mid-60s, is a native of Wyoming. She is the current director of the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
She previously worked in oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both in Boston. She told senators her research focused on how inflammation leads to cancer.
Sanders said Wednesday that senators on the committee will discuss her nomination again on Wednesday, Oct. 25.