During the 2023 legislative session, we’ll be taking a close look at the notable—and, yes, silly—bills that come under the consideration of the august bodies that make up our state government to help you understand what your lawmakers are spending their time on.    

The bill: Senate Bill 314

Filed by: Bob Hall, Republican, Senate District 2 (Edgewood)

What it would do: A few things. First, it would require that foods containing human fetal tissue be labeled. Then, it would—

Okay, we should probably pause at that one. There, uh, are no foods containing human fetal tissue on your local supermarket shelves (or elsewhere!). Hall’s bill outlines several different kinds of foods that it defines as “fetal tissue food product”: first, foods containing human fetal tissue, which is downright macabre to attempt to imagine. (Some viral social media misinformation threads suggest that it might be a secret ingredient in plant-based meat, even though fetal tissue is (a) not being used in this manner, and we’re not even sure how that would work, and (b) definitely not vegetarian.) But just to be clear, this is not a thing that exists in the world. According to a statement from the Food and Drug Administration, “There are no conditions under which the FDA would consider human fetal tissue to be safe or legal for human or animal consumption.” 

Hall’s bill also takes aim at food products manufactured using human fetal tissue, which sounds like a distinction without a difference, and which is also not something one can find in the world. Finally, the bill includes any food product that “is otherwise derived from research using human fetal tissue.” The bill further defines “human fetal tissue” as “tissue, cells, or organs obtained from an aborted unborn child.” 

This last part does refer, at least to some extent, to a thing that does exist in the world. HEK-293 is a cell line derived from human embryonic kidney cells in the 1970s that originated as fetal tissue (whether that tissue was obtained from an abortion or a miscarriage is, according to one of the biologists who worked on the original research, lost to time). Those cells were cloned (the “293” in the cell-line name refers to the 293rd experiment using the tissue), and eventually, the research helped lead to the development of certain kinds of products—mostly pharmaceutical, though there has been additional research into whether HEK-293 could be used to test artificial flavorings. That study was published more than two decades ago by a company named Senomyx. According to a spokesperson for PepsiCo, which previously partnered with Senomyx on research, that research did not yield any consumer products. Senomyx was acquired by a Swiss firm in 2018, and while that firm does supply products to manufacturers such as Nestlé, a Nestlé spokesperson said that it does not offer any products that use HEK-293 research. There is no evidence of any foods on shelves that would receive the label that SB 314 would require. 

The section of the bill dealing with food products may have been prompted by viral social media posts that implicate a handful of fairly common targets of conservative ire, such as plant-based meat companies and Bill Gates (without providing any evidence that there is any link). The conspiracy theory suggests that Senomyx (whose research involved investigating whether HEK-293-based cell lines could be used to more efficiently determine if artificial flavorings would be appealing to consumers) spiked Pepsi and Nestlé products with those imagined flavorings, and that Bill Gates is planning to do the same with plant-based meat, a product for which he has previously advocated. There is, again, no product in which anyone would consume actual fetal-tissue cells. 

Now that we’ve addressed the food portion of the bill, we can move on to the rest of what it would affect: medical products and cosmetic products. The language in the sections dealing with these product categories is identical to that in the food-product section. We can take these piece by piece as well. 

In cosmetics, processed skin-cell proteins, contained in certain skin-care products, are derived from research conducted several decades ago using donated fetal tissue to create cell lines similar to HEK-293. These products do not contain any fetal tissue, and they are not manufactured using fetal tissue, but they are derived from research that utilized fetal tissue over a decade ago, and thus would probably be affected by Hall’s bill. 

In medicine, meanwhile, fetal tissue is not present in the actual products themselves, nor is fetal tissue used to manufacture those products; we are, once again, talking about research involving cell lines taken from long-ago abortions. Whether to avail oneself of medications that were derived in any way from fetal tissue has often presented an ethical dilemma for those who are opposed to abortion but whose health requires the use of treatments developed from those cell lines—and the issue has received increased attention since the COVID-19 vaccines were released, as both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were created with research that utilized HEK-293, and and Johnson & Johnson used fetal cell lines in the production and manufacturing of its vaccine. (No fetal cells were present in any of the final products.)

In 2020, Pope Francis himself weighed in on the dilemma of whether to receive vaccines that were developed using immortalized cell lines, such as HEK-293, which can be re-created indefinitely without new fetal tissue. (He’s okay with it, given the lack of alternatives.) Others who’ve come to different moral conclusions have claimed religious exemptions to vaccine requirements because of the link between HEK-293 and the COVID vaccines (fetal cells are also used to make vaccines for varicella, rubella, hepatitis A, and rabies, in drug research involving common medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, and in research into treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes, and Parkinson’s). 

Food products would not be affected by SB 314, in other words, but a whole lot of items in the pharmacy aisle of your local H-E-B would see new labels attached to their packaging. 

Does the bill have a chance of passing? Maybe. This appears to be the first time such a bill has come before the Texas Legislature. But in 2012, an Oklahoma lawmaker offered one up that would have banned the (nonexistent) practice of selling food made with fetal tissue (the bill died in committee). If it appears that SB 314 is gathering momentum, we’d expect that the pharmaceutical companies whose products would be most affected by the bill becoming law would make clear to lawmakers that, rather than just affecting culture-war targets like the COVID-19 vaccines, it would mean affixing a “made with fetuses” label onto every bottle of Pepto sold in Texas. Is this something that could happen anyway? Anything is possible in the Lege.