Why Scientists Are Terrified Of Supporting A Valuable Medical Research Practice

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Only a handful of scientists who rely on fetal tissue donations to conduct their research feel comfortable going on record to defend the practice, after weeks of controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood’s role in facilitating this process. The scientific community has remained largely silent on the subject because they’re worried about backlash from abortion opponents.

Planned Parenthood, one of the largest reproductive health providers in the country, has come under fire for allegedly “selling aborted baby parts,” thanks to the release of several inflammatory videos that depict its employees speaking frankly about fetal tissue donation. In response, the organization’s supporters have been pushing back on the emerging narrative that Planned Parenthood is engaging in unethical activity with aborted fetuses. Pro-choice politicians have defended the group’s work against efforts to cut its federal funding, while some women who chose to donate fetal tissue after their pregnancy terminations have started speaking up.

Some reproductive rights proponents have recently grown frustrated with the fact that scientists themselves — who rely on tissue from fetuses that would otherwise be discarded to develop treatments for degenerative diseases — haven’t been as vocal.

Scientists have been using the biological material from aborted fetuses, which is a rich source of stem cells, for decades. Fetal tissue can help develop vaccines, teach scientists more about cell biology, and facilitate new treatments for health issues ranging from AIDS to spinal cord injuries to cancer to eyesight loss. In some cases, these donations contribute to treatments that prevent pregnancy loss: Before fetal tissue helped develop the vaccine against rubella, for instance, this infection caused 5,000 miscarriages each year.

“On the issue of fetal-tissue research, we need to hear loud and clear from the scientific community,” author Katha Pollitt, whose most recent book makes the case for reclaiming the pro-choice position, writes in an op-ed in the New York Times. “Anti-abortion activists are calling for a ban on this research, which ironically is used primarily to find treatments for sick babies. Will scientists let that happen?”

Indeed, some states are already making moves to attempt to cut off fetal tissue research within their borders. Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of the researchers who depend on fetal tissue donations haven’t agreed to speak to the press to defend their work — because, they say, they’re worried about sparking the ire of the anti-abortion community.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that “many major universities declined to make scientists available for interviews about their fetal tissue work, saying they fear for the researchers’ safety because the issue is so highly charged.” BuzzFeed had a similar experience while reporting on the issue this month: After reaching out to more than 70 scientists who receive federal funding for studies that use human fetal tissue, just six agreed to talk to the outlet, but only under the condition of anonymity. Those six researchers cited their own personal safety as well as concerns from the universities that employ them.

“There’s crazy people out there and I have young children,” one stem cell biologist told BuzzFeed. “Secondly, to be honest, my university will probably freak out as well. They don’t want to deal with the craziness around this.”

These scientists aren’t necessarily being unreasonable. It’s true that many of the medical professionals who are affiliated with abortion are subject to intense levels of harassment and intimidation from the people who think the medical procedure should be illegal. Eight clinic workers have been murdered in the United States in the last 21 years, including Dr. George Tiller, who was shot dead while handing out church bulletins at his place of worship in 2009.

Anyone who works at an abortion clinic can become a target, and the protests sometimes do follow them home to their private residences where their families live. There have been some documented instances of anti-abortion protesters showing up to picket providers’ children’s schools or to accost providers’ parents in their nursing homes. Hospitals and universities can also find themselves on the receiving end of anti-abortion harassment, as abortion opponents pressure them to cut ties with doctors who provide pregnancy terminations.

The problem has actually been getting worse in recent years: A survey of clinic employees conducted last year by the Feminist Majority Foundation found that the rates of stalking, home picketing, and distribution of personal information online have all been on the rise since 2010.

According to David Cohen and Krysten Connon, whose recent book Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism documents the ways that doctors and their families are affected by anti-abortion extremists, there have been more than 60,000 reported instances of harassment and violence against abortion providers since 1977. In that environment, they say it’s perhaps no wonder that many fetal tissue researchers would rather remain anonymous.

“We applaud people who have had abortions who speak out, as well as abortion providers and researchers who do the same. It is necessary for our society to change,” Cohen and Connon write in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times. “But given the anti-abortion terrorism that continues to this day, we also understand those who don’t.”