Over the past several weeks, Republicans lawmakers have seized on Planned Parenthood’s practice of facilitating fetal tissue donations — which abortion opponents have characterized as “selling aborted baby parts” — to push for defunding the national women’s health organization.
The current controversy is being stoked by the release of several inflammatory videos that depict graphic images of fetal parts. That’s given GOP politicians an opening to strongly condemn this area of scientific research, suggesting that Planned Parenthood is an immoral actor whose employees essentially rip apart fetuses limb by limb. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), the lead sponsor of the legislation seeking to strip federal funding from the group, said the videos are “hard for anyone to defend,” adding that “Planned Parenthood is harvesting the body parts of unborn babies.”
But there’s a flip side to the story. In an editorial published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, lawyer and bioethicist Alta Charo, who’s currently affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, lays out a strong case for fetal tissue research from a moral perspective.
According to Charo, it’s morally wrong to oppose fetal tissue research because that opposition stands in the way of scientific developments that have saved millions of lives.
“Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue,” Charo writes. “Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us (and give even the unvaccinated the benefit of herd immunity). This work has been going on for nearly a century, and the vaccines it produced have been in use nearly as long. Any discussion of the ethics of fetal tissue research must begin with its unimpeachable claim to have saved the lives and health of millions of people.”
Ironically, some of the advances in vaccines that Charo references have helped protect unborn children in the womb. Before fetal tissue helped develop an effective vaccine against rubella, for instance, this infection caused 5,000 miscarriages each year.
Since the biological material from aborted fetuses is a rich source of stem cells, scientists say these donations can also help them study a host of degenerative diseases. Fetal tissue is used to develop new ways to treat AIDS, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, cancer, and eyesight loss.
So far, critics of fetal tissue donations have not yet indicated that they will refuse the medical treatments that have been developed thanks to donations from women who have had abortions. In light of that fact, Charo concludes that “fairness and reciprocity alone” suggests they have an obligation to avoid thwarting this area of scientific research.
Nonetheless, that’s not what’s happening. The ongoing controversy swirling around Planned Parenthood has spurred lawmakers in states like Arizona, Wisconsin, and California to take steps to make it more difficult to donate fetal tissue. Meanwhile, many scientists are too nervous to speak up to defend these donations because they’re worried about potential backlash and harassment from abortion opponents.
Fetal tissue donation has not always been so politically contentious. Thanks to pressure from groups seeking treatments for degenerative diseases, Republican lawmakers actually have a long history of supporting this type of research. In 1993, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle voted to legalize the study of fetal tissue samples obtained from legal abortion procedures. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who’s a neurosurgeon, used human fetal tissue in a 1992 study seeking to better understand the development of the brain.
In light of the current controversy surrounding the videos targeting Planned Parenthood, however, those lawmakers are not coming out in defense of fetal tissue research — and are instead aligning themselves with the anti-abortion activists who have been planning this particular attack on Planned Parenthood for years.
“By using the public’s unfamiliarity with the history and realities of fetal tissue research as a back door for attacking Planned Parenthood, abortion opponents have added millions of people to the collateral damage of the abortion wars,” Caro writes. “This attack represents a betrayal of the people whose lives could be saved by the research and a violation of that most fundamental duty of medicine and health policy, the duty of care.”