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Dr. Francis Collins, scientist and Christian, to step down as NIH head

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by Jonah McKeown

Washington D.C., Oct 5, 2021 / 15:00 pm

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken Christian, announced Tuesday that he will step down as director after serving in the role since 2009.

Collins was the longest-serving presidentially appointed NIH director, the organization says, having served under three U.S. presidents after his 2009 appointment by President Barack Obama. In expressing gratitude for his time as director, Collins said he “fundamentally” believes that “no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future.”

During his 12 year tenure, the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical companies to aid in the creation of an approved vaccine for COVID-19.

But Collins, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, differed from the Catholic Church’s teachings in his opinions regarding the use of fetal tissue of aborted babies in research. Earlier this year, he oversaw a rollback of a moratorium on new NIH research with aborted fetal tissue.

Collins has said he considers the question of whether it is ethical to use human embryos and aborted fetuses for research is an “important issue to think through carefully.”

“I would be the first to say we should not be creating or destroying embryos- human embryos- for research, and we should not be terminating pregnancies for research,” Collins told CNA in a May 2020 interview.

“But if there are embryos that are left over after in vitro fertilization- and the hundreds of thousands that are never going to be used for anything, they’ll be discarded- I think it is ethical to consider ways in which research might make it possible to utilize that information to help somebody.”

“And likewise, if there are hundreds of thousands of fetuses that are otherwise being discarded through what is a legal process in this country, we ought to think about whether it is more ethical to throw them away, or in some rare instance to use them for research that might be life saving,” he said.

The 2008 Vatican document Dignitas personae strongly criticized research using human embryos and fetal tissue of aborted babies, stating that researchers have a “duty to refuse” such material. Regarding treatment of human embryos, the document states that “the obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo…invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit.”

However, regarding common vaccines — such as those for chicken pox and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) — that are derived from cell lines of aborted babies, the Vatican said they could be used by parents for “grave reasons” such as danger to their children’s health.

After Collins in 2018 defended NIH research using fetal tissue, and said it “will continue to be the mainstay,” the associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities called his remarks “deeply disturbing.” The pro-life groups Live Action and the March for Life also called for Collins’ replacement as NIH director that year over his support for fetal tissue research.

In 2019, Trump administration rules imposed a moratorium on new NIH research with aborted fetal tissue. For federally-funded fetal tissue research proposals outside NIH facilities, the agency required approval by federal ethics advisory boards.

However, in April 2021, the Biden administration reversed that moratorium, again allowing federally-funded NIH research using fetal tissue and organs of aborted babies. Also nixed was the requirement that a federal ethics advisory board review all proposals for fetal tissue research.

During his tenure as NIH director, Collins oversaw the institutes’ collaboration with several pharmaceutical companies and government agencies to develop vaccines for COVID-19. Some Catholics have raised concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines’ remote connection to aborted fetal tissue, using cell lines derived from fetal tissue of babies believed to have been aborted in the 1970s.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use because of the gravity of the pandemic and the vaccines’ remote connection to abortion. If one has the ability to choose a vaccine, the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines should be chosen due to their not having been produced with the controversial cell lines, as was the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the conference said.

Before joining the NIH in 2009, Collins was professor of internal medicine and human genetics at the University of Michigan, leading research that had discovered the genes responsible for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease, and Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare form of premature aging.

In 1993, he was appointed director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, overseeing the Human Genome Project, an international collaboration that in 2003 succeeded in sequencing the three billion DNA “letters” in the human genome.

A Virginia native, Collins was homeschooled until age 10 and studied chemistry at the college and graduate level, earning a bachelor’s, Ph.D., and later his M.D., after which he was named a Fellow in Human Genetics at Yale Medical School.

Non-religious until age 27, Collins has said that he was previously “very happy with the idea that God did not exist and that he had no interest in me.”

Collins converted in part thanks to his reading of C.S. Lewis’ classic book Mere Christianity, which lays out a rational case for God’s existence. Today, he is outspoken about his Christian faith. He wrote a book in 2006 entitled “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” in which he describes how religious faith can motivate and inspire rigorous scientific research.

He and his wife in 2007 founded the non-profit BioLogos Foundation, which aims to foster discussion about harmony between science and biblical faith through articles, podcasts, and other media.

Collins is also a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, having been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Collins was selected as the 2020 recipient of the Templeton Prize, an award recognizing his contributions to insight about religion through his work as a scientist.

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