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#5 Story of 2021: Francis Collins’s Troubling Record at NIH

John G. West
Photo: Francis Collins, by NIH Image Gallery, via Flickr.

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The following was originally published on October 5, 2021.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has just announced his intention to step down at the end of 2021 after more than 12 years heading the agency. The accolades are already rolling in. Noted evangelical political commentator David French, for example, rushed to praise Collins as “a national treasure.”

But Collins’s real legacy is anything but praiseworthy, and the tendency of figures in the faith community to ignore his real record is far from admirable. 

This year of all years should have made the truth about Francis Collins clear. Last month, documents were released suggesting that top National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials may have lied when they denied that the NIH had funded “gain of function” research in Wuhan, China, that could have resulted in a pathogen that could infect humans.   

After reviewing the documents, Rutgers University biologist Richard Ebright had a blistering response: “The documents make it clear that assertions by the NIH Director, Francis Collins, and the NIAID Director, Anthony Fauci, that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research or potential pandemic pathogen enhancement… are untruthful.”

It was another blow to the reputation of Collins in a year when his agency has faced multiple scandals and controversies. 

Among evangelical Christians and other people of faith in America, Collins has long been the equivalent of a rock star. But Collins’s days of glory as a non-partisan role model, especially for the faith community, may be numbered — and it’s not just because of the latest scandal over the origins of COVID-19.

In recent months, Collins’s agency has become embroiled in controversies over its funding of stomach-churning medical experiments involving body parts harvested from aborted babies. The disclosures about the experiments followed Collins’s repeal earlier this year of restrictions on the use of aborted fetal tissue in NIH-funded research.

Collins has also stirred controversy with his increasingly intemperate attacks on unvaccinated Americans and his support for harsh mandatory vaccination policies that will require the firing of employees who choose not to be vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine. 

A Bipartisan Celebrity

The former head of the Human Genome Project, Collins catapulted to fame (and the cover of Time Magazine) in 2000 with the announcement of a “working draft of the sequence of the human genome.” He then became a hero to many Christians with the publication in 2006 of his book The Language of God, which recounted his journey from atheism to Christianity. 

In an increasingly polarized national environment, Collins is one of the rare heads of a major federal agency to serve under both Republican and Democratic Presidents. Appointed by President Obama to head the NIH in 2009, Collins continued in that role under President Trump and now President Biden. He has regularly drawn praise from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. At gatherings of evangelical Christians, he has been known to strum the guitar and sing worship songs and receive the adoration of attendees. At one 2019 event it was reported that “conference participants lined up for selfies” with him. 

In 2020, Collins was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, worth more than $1.3 million, for his work integrating science and faith. Previous recipients of the prize have included Mother Teresa, John Polkinghorne, Charles Colson, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Among secular as well as religious journalists, Collins often receives what verges on fawning treatment. A writer for The New Yorker gushed that Collins is “a model of geek cool. He likes big, noisy motorcycles, and, despite a mild manner, he is famously unself-conscious. At the unlikeliest moments, he will strap on a guitar and accompany himself in song, often a tune he has composed for the occasion.”

This year, however, Collins’s reputation has taken continued beatings, not just because of evasive answers about the role of the NIH in gain-of-function research in China, but also because of publicity around NIH-funded experiments that many Americans, especially people of faith, would find horrific.

NIH’s Gruesome Experiments with Baby Parts

In May, reports surfaced about macabre NIH-funded experiments that utilized body parts collected from aborted human fetuses to create “humanized mouse and rodent models with full-thickness human skin.” For the experiments, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh cut into tiny pieces “human fetal spleen, thymus, and liver organs” and “then transplanted the tissues and hematopoietic stem cells into irradiated… mice.” Researchers also sliced off skin from the scalp of the aborted babies and then grafted the fetal skin onto the mice. In the words of the scientists: “Full-thickness human fetal skin was processed via removal of excess fat tissues attached to the subcutaneous layer of the skin, then engrafted over the rib cage, where the mouse skin was previously excised.”

The body parts used for these experiments were harvested from aborted human fetuses with a gestational age of 18-20 weeks. By that age, an unborn baby has brain waves and a beating heart. He can hear sounds and move his limbs and eyes, and his digestion system has started to work. In other words, the human fetuses whose organs were harvested for this NIH-funded research were well-developed tiny humans, not blobs of undifferentiated cells.  

In August, an additional project funded by the NIH came to light thanks to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Judicial Watch and the Center for Medical Progress. The lawsuit was filed after Collins’s NIH dragged its feet in responding. According to Judicial Watch, the documents show that the NIH has provided nearly $3 million in tax dollars to support a fetal organ harvesting operation by the University of Pittsburgh in its “quest to become a ‘Tissue Hub’ for human fetal tissue ranging from 6 to 42 [!] weeks gestation.”  

David Daleiden, president of the Center for Medical Progress, commented: “The NIH grant application for just one of Pitt’s numerous experiments with aborted infants reads like an episode of American Horror Story. Infants in the womb, some old enough to be viable, are being aborted alive and killed for organ harvesting, in order to bring in millions of dollars in taxpayer funding….”

Daleiden further alleged that NIH funding was used to underwrite “labor induction abortions, where the baby is pushed out of the mother whole” and then killed to obtain the desired tissues. In other words, the NIH was facilitating a process where “babies, some of the age of viability, [are] to be delivered alive, and then killing them by cutting their kidneys out.”

Francis Collins self-identifies as an evangelical Christian, and most evangelicals as well as faithful Catholics regard abortion as the destruction of innocent human life. 

So how has Collins responded to these revelations? With horror? With a pledge to investigate? With a promise to stop taxpayer funding of such research?

Since early August, I’ve repeatedly tried to get Collins to answer questions about these NIH funded experiments using aborted fetal organs and tissues. Does Collins support this research funded by his agency? Does he have any ethical objections to it? How does he personally justify the research given his religious convictions? I repeatedly emailed these and other questions to the media contacts for the NIH Office of the Director.

The response? His office has refused to answer. 

But it’s not just NIH research involving humans that has been raising controversy this year. In recent months, Collins’s NIH has come under fire for funding abusive medical experiments on dogs that critics say were unnecessary as well as barbaric. The experiments were funded by the NIH division headed by Anthony Fauci, but that division is under the ultimate oversight of Collins. In late August, 15 members of Congress sent a letter raising questions about the research.

Again, I tried to get a response from Collins about this latest controversy. Again, he refused to respond to questions.

Ironically, while Collins is AWOL when it comes to answering basic questions about the research his agency is funding, he is more than willing to speak out on other topics, especially COVID-19, where he is now becoming a polarizing figure to many because of increasingly intemperate advocacy of compulsory vaccination as well as his demonization of those who choose not to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Collins’s War on Medical Conscience

At the end of April, Collins claimed that he would not require NIH employees to get vaccinated, and he seemed to argue for a positive approach of selling the benefits of vaccines rather than demonizing the unvaccinated or engaging in “finger-wagging.” Yet by early August his public posture had changed. He was now cheerleading for compulsory vaccine requirements imposed by private businesses as well as enthusiastically overseeing compulsory vaccinations for the very workers at the NIH that he earlier said would not face compulsory vaccination. 

After President Biden’s speech in September declaring war on the unvaccinated, Collins ramped up his own rhetoric. In an appearance on MSNBC after Biden’s speech, Collins first suggested unvaccinated people were selfish, declaring that “this is really an occasion to think about loving your neighbor, not just yourself.”

Collins then branded both unvaccinated people and politicians who don’t favor vaccine mandates as killers on the wrong side of history. Dismissing their views as merely a “philosophical political argument” that is part of the “culture war,” Collins complained that this “philosophical political argument” is “killing people, including, I’m sad to say, some children. We have to get past this if we really have a future as a nation.”

“I would like to say particularly to those leaders who are on the wrong side of this, what Lincoln said one time,” Collins declared. “Citizens, we will not escape history. Do you want to be looked at in the lens of that backward look ten years from now and defend what you did when in fact, we are losing tens of thousands of lives that didn’t have to die?”

A question for Collins: Is attacking your fellow citizens (including many fellow Christians) as heartless killers because they disagree with you on either vaccinations or vaccine mandates an example of loving your neighbor? 

Whatever one thinks about COVID-19 vaccinations, Collins’s over-the-top rhetoric — demonizing those he disagrees with as killers — is beyond the pale, especially for someone who wears his Christianity on his sleeve. As I have written elsewhere, his rhetoric is also based on several falsehoods.

So just how far is Collins willing to go to push coercive medicine? That’s an interesting question.

In my home state of Washington, the governor has issued an emergency order that will compel private religious schools and day care centers as well as other private businesses to fire employees later this month if they won’t get vaccinated. While there technically is a route for religious exemptions, it is so narrow and onerous that many religious people may not qualify.

It’s now being suggested in some states that discharged employees won’t be able to get unemployment benefits. Perhaps the idea is that if the unvaccinated don’t die of COVID they can die of starvation instead.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the unvaccinated face the denial of medical care. Also in my home state, the University of Washington medical system is now apparently denying organ transplants to patients who are unvaccinated, even if those patients have a credible medical reason for not having the vaccinations. 

This is pure, unadulterated social Darwinism: Brand a whole class of people as biologically “unfit” (in this case, the “unvaccinated”) and then make sure they can’t receive medical care, hold jobs, or basically survive. Heap scorn on them, demonize them as killers, and stir up hatred against them so other people begin to abuse them. If Collins is truly concerned about the judgment of history, he should read a little more widely about the sorry results of demonizing entire classes of people as the enemies of society.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing here about whether people ought to get COVID-19 vaccinations, or whether those vaccinations are helpful. For the record, depending on one’s risk profile, I think vaccinations are in a person’s best interest. The issue is whether in the name of vaccination people should be stripped of their livelihoods, denied medical care, and demonized as enemies of society. In any morally sane universe, the policies being proposed are as immoral as they are unprecedented.

So does Francis Collins endorse depriving unvaccinated people of their right to work and to support their families? Does he endorse denying them unemployment insurance? Does he go even further and endorse denying medical care to the unvaccinated? 

I again asked Collins’ media relations staff for answers. Again, crickets.

Conscience Rights for Me, Not for Thee

Although Collins likes to tout his personal faith, he appears to have very little concern for any sort of conscience rights of fellows religious believers who disagree with him.  After all, he dutifully served in a previous administration that repeatedly weakened conscience protections for medical workers opposed to abortion and that violated federal law by turning a blind eye when California mandated abortion coverage in all private insurance plans.

It might also be noted that as late as December 2020, Collins was still urging that most churches should not meet in person, even implying that they shouldn’t do so until the summer or fall of 2021

And his current promotion of compulsory vaccinations seemingly has no qualifiers. At least, he isn’t talking about any. 

Collins has conceded that various COVID-19 vaccines used cell lines originally derived from an aborted fetus in either their production or testing, which is one reason some people have moral qualms about the vaccines. Yet you won’t find Collins advocating for the conscience rights of these people. In fact, Collins has been silent in the face of attacks on religious exemptions for vaccines.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the use of abortion-derived cell lines is a moral deal-killer for the vaccines. But that’s the point: Reasonable people can disagree about what violates their conscience. The test of support for religious liberty is not whether you only support the right of people who agree with you.

Not being willing to stand up for the conscience rights of others to determine their own medical treatment is not morally neutral. It is a moral failure. In the words of the Catholic Bishops of Colorado, “A person is morally required to obey his or her conscience,” and others should respect the right of others to follow their conscience.

Alas, for those who have followed Francis Collins closely over the years, his current failures of moral leadership come as no surprise. As I will discuss in an upcoming article, many of the problems discussed here have roots in the past, and there is a pattern.

UPDATE: Postscript to Anyone Offended by This Article (October 14, 2021)

Francis Collins is a beloved figure to many. He may be a beloved figure to you. If so, reading this article must have been incredibly hard, and I thank you for being open enough to have read all the way to this point. If all you have heard until now is universal praise of Collins, you may find the article harsh or difficult to accept.

Let me be clear about what I am not saying about Collins. I am not questioning the sincerity of his faith. I am not denying that he is a distinguished scientist. I am not claiming he is out for personal financial gain. I am not claiming that he has a bad personal life. In fact, he seems quite gregarious and congenial to those he befriends. I am challenging his public views and his record, and I’m documenting my claims by links to evidence. In doing so, I am trying to bring attention to Collins’ actual record and views, something most of his public defenders have spent the last decade ignoring. As a Christian, I think it’s wonderful that Collins found faith in Jesus. But that shouldn’t immunize him from accountability for his policies and how he has defended them.

I recognize some people found my original title, “The Appalling Moral Failure of Francis Collins” especially offensive. The moral failure referred to in the title was Collins’s record at the NIH. Because this was misunderstood by some, I have chosen to change the title to the current one. I also changed a few word choices in the article based on input from others. But the substance of the article has not been changed.