True “pro-life” conservatives should support lifesaving fetal tissue research

Fact vs. fiction.
Fact vs. fiction.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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On Sep. 18, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood. The vote, which played out mostly along party lines, is part of a concerted effort by many conservative politicians to make life much, much harder for the health care provider.

The bill heads to the Senate, where it will be used as partisan leverage during budget negotiations in advance of the Oct. 1 deadline. An initial vote could come as early as today.

Clearly, issues of contraception, abortion and the use of fetal tissue for research are controversial, with the country bitterly divided along political, ethical and religious grounds. The debate has polarized the nation, with some factions arguing that fetal tissue use could ameliorate human suffering while others condemn anything that they say puts an end to human life—whatever your definition of that is.

This debate has come into sharp focus recently due to allegations that Planned Parenthood employees sold fetal tissue for scientific research, and then talked shop about it over cocktails. Quite a bit of evidence suggests this is not true, however. In a pre-election year it is not surprising that these topics have emerged as prominent talking points for the crowded slate of GOP presidential candidates (although the blatant lying of some hopefuls has been particularly egregious.)

Conservatives feel that using fetal tissue for research somehow legitimizes abortion, and are hesitant to provide federal assistance for either contraception or abortion. The irony of this perspective, of course, is that it prioritizes the embryo over the child born to a woman unprepared financially and emotionally for motherhood. It also ignores the fact that most women who exercise the option to terminate their pregnancy do so only after an agonizing process, and one which should not be trivialized.

Lumping the “evils” of fetal tissue research in with the “evils” of abortion may make sense for a virulent anti-abortion (or as they like to be called, pro-life) advocate. But lost in the partisan rhetoric is the fact that fetal tissue research is a medical necessity, and one that ultimately helps preserve and improve the lives of humans. Supporters underscore the benefits of such research for patients suffering from devastating and often fatal illnesses, some with no hope for cure.

Those scandalized by the Planned Parenthood videos fail to recognize and appreciate the significance of this research. They seem to believe that embryo and fetal tissue research is comparable to sacrificing one human being to benefit others. While I personally believe very strongly that this is not the case, I know it will be very hard to make an emotional appeal to conservatives. This is not productive.

Instead, despite any personal convictions, I will use my position as a senior research scientist to evaluate how incinerator-bound waste can be channeled for therapeutic purposes, purposes that can ameliorate human disease and suffering.

Put simply: If fetal tissue were not made available to the scientific community for research, it would be discarded as biological waste and incinerated. Is this preservation of “life,” as defined by conservatives? Because from a scientific standpoint, it amounts to denial of an unique opportunity to learn more about disease mechanisms and consequently to evaluate treatment strategies in the laboratory. The language I will use to discuss these points is purposefully blunt. This is not to be confused with callousness, as conservatives would like you to believe—rather, it is the language of fact.

For a scientist who uses patient’s tissue samples to study the causes, mechanisms and subsequently, treatment modalities for incurable human diseases, the value of these discarded tissue samples cannot be underscored. Whether it is a pre-embryo redundant for in vitro fertilization (IVF) implantation, or discarded tissue from an nonviable fetus, or unidentified excess pathology or autopsy samples, it can be used to find those groundbreaking breakthroughs to alleviate human suffering. Contraception, abortion, use of embryonic cells, and fetal tissue for research are all important issues that merit discussion based on scientific facts and not on emotional, spiritual or political rhetoric.

From a sciencentric point of view, embryonic cells from surplus pre-embryos and fetal tissue from abortions are at pre- and post-implantation stages of human reproduction respectively. A fertilized embryo is an oocyte (egg) fused with a sperm. For IVF, these pre-embryos are implanted and the excess is frozen and stored for future attempts at implantation. A large part of these fertilized pre-embryos are never successfully implanted. Pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the uterus and develops into a healthy embryo. The pre-embryos that are not used may be offered to others, or donated for research or discarded.

There are several advantages of fetal tissue or embryonic cells over adult cells. First of all, fetal tissue has unique characteristics that make it especially valuable in some treatments. Fetal cells also develop and grow much faster than adult cells, and therefore, more effective in seriously ill patients. They are also less likely to be rejected by transplant recipients because they are less antigenic than adult cells, eliminating the need for the exact tissue matches that can be difficult to achieve. Fetal tissue is also easier to culture and proliferates more readily than comparable adult tissue. Furthermore, fetal tissue is in greater supply due to the number of elective abortions.

The results, even in the limited history of fetal cell research, are hard to argue with. Fetal tissue was used in the development of polio and rubella vaccines. Fetal neural tissue transplantation is being evaluated as a promising treatment to restore motor function in Parkinson’s disease. Currently human fetal-tissue transplantation is used for the treatment of diabetes, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and hematopoietic, metabolic and other disorders, and the results of several other trials have been encouraging.

The way these important but provocative stories are framed depends a lot on the polticial climate. Several government task forces and advisory committees that have studied these issues have reached the conclusion that with generally accepted principles of medical ethics, proper safeguards and regulations and guidelines in place, the use of fetal tissue from induced abortions is acceptable.

The country needs clear and consistent rules and regulations for research on human embryos, and fetal tissues, as well as uniform methods of review. These methods must stipulate that the decision to abort be made prior to tissue donation; an agreement of anonymity between the donor and recipient is required; the timing of an abortion should not be influenced by possible use of tissue; the consent of the pregnant woman is necessary; no financial incentives can be given to the donor.

I strongly believe that such guidelines should be sufficient to placate the political establishment in Washington DC—if the benefits of fetal tissue research were to be made available. Being “pro-life” should not mean the sanctioning of preventable human suffering.