Should Aborted Fetuses Be Used for Medical Research?
Chapter 5 Preface
Despite being hailed as a scientific breakthrough in treating debilitating diseases, transplants using fetal tissue remain a controversial area of research due to the tissue’s source—aborted fetuses. Embryonic stem cells from fetuses have the potential to grow into a variety of body parts and organs, including the heart, brain, and nervous system. Scientists hope that transplanting these fundamental stem cells will help regenerate diseased cells, offering an effective treatment and possible cure for such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, many scientists focused their fetal tissue research on the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Advocates of fetal tissue transplants have praised the results of clinical trials that injected fetal brain tissue deep into the deteriorating brains of Parkinson’s sufferers. They assert that, unlike transplants involving adult tissue, fetal tissue transplants appear to grow and flourish in their new environment, reinvigorating the brain with muchneeded chemicals. According to journalist Tracy Watson, “In some of the several dozen Parkinson’s patients who have had fetal nerve cells implanted in their failing brains . . . , the improvement has been spectacular.” A number of Parkinson’s patients who participated in similar clinical studies have also reported improvement in their overall well-being, movement, and muscle flexibility.
Many medical researchers,...
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Fetal Tissue Research Will Benefit Medical Science
Scientists have isolated and grown embryonic cells that are capable of becoming many different organs, if given the proper genetic directions. On November 6, 1998, the New York Times reported that two groups of researchers, one headed by Dr. James A. Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the other by Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, had succeeded in growing human stem cells in the laboratory. The hope is that these could be used to grow organs for transplantation. Since the Federal Government has consistently refused to support research on the human embryo or embryonic cells, both projects were funded by Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, CA, a biotechnology company that specializes in genetic research on aging.
The two teams of researchers used different methods to isolate stem cells. Dr. Thomson’s cells were taken from a 15- to 20-cell “pre-embryo” called a blastocyst, about three days after fertilization. At this point in development, each cell is “pluripotent,” meaning that it has the power to become many different parts of the body. (The stem cells may even be “totipotent,” meaning that they can become all organs in the body, but this has not been demonstrated.) About half the cells in a blastocyst become the placenta; the rest eventually become part of a developing embryo, at about 14 days. At the blastocyst stage, however, all the cells are the same; there is no way of knowing whether a...
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Fetal Tissue Research Will Not Increase Abortions
“How dare we kill innocent babies just to make things a little easier for old people?” It was not so much a question as an accusation. Others at the hearing looked expectantly toward me as I stood at the podium. I took a deep breath. Then I tried once again to describe the process by which fetal tissue becomes available for transplantation and its many potential uses for recipients of various ages—including a case in which fetal tissue was transplanted into another fetus in utero.
The asking and answering of that particular question took place four days before delegates to the annual conference of the Church of the Brethren rejected a position paper that expressed cautious and limited approval of fetal tissue use in the treatment of disease or injury. . . .
The question about killing babies to benefit the elderly did more than produce a tense moment. It also reflected two features common to most arguments against fetal tissue use: strong emotion and caricature-like perception of the practice of fetal tissue procurement and transplantation. Current fetal tissue therapy and experimentation programs in the U.S. obtain fetal tissue from legal abortions under strict National Institutes of Health guidelines. These guidelines insist on anonymity between donor and recipient (so one cannot direct that fetal tissue be donated to help a loved one) and forbid payment to the woman who makes tissue available, thus undercutting what might otherwise be...
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Fetal Tissue Transplants Are Ineffective
The hugely unimpressive outcome of a four-year-long clinical trial that injected brain tissue harvested from aborted babies in an attempt to treat Parkinson’s disease was well hidden in recent reports in the mainstream media. Indeed, just reading the headlines of the findings, presented in Toronto at the 1999 annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, the reader could altogether miss how abysmal were the results of the controversial surgery.
For example, Parkinson’s is a disease in which the overwhelming majority of patients are senior citizens. Yet the controversial fetal transplants were found to be ineffective for anyone over 60 years of age. Even among the younger patients in the study, the claimed benefits are limited and qualified.
However, these bottom-line outcomes were well hidden in the rose-tinted press coverage. “Hints of success in fetal cell transplants” (New York Times) and “Parkinson’s progress” (Medical Post) stretched the minimally positive results to the breaking point. The Washington Post’s statement “Fetal cell implants may benefit younger Parkinson’s patients” was at least slightly more realistic.
In fact the supposed benefits were extremely marginal. Were the claims of proponents treated less uncritically, these fetal tissue results could represent the beginning of the end of this unethical chapter in neurological research. Unfortunately, the message may...
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Fetal Tissue Transplants Are Immoral
When a Baptist minister spoke to Congress in favor of government funding of fetal tissue transplants, he claimed to represent a pro-life point of view. Sprinkling his presentation with quotes from the Bible, he told a congressional subcommittee that it was “pro-life” to support any treatment that saves lives. He asserted that God approved of tissue transplants in general because He performed the first one, referring to the creation of Eve.
The minister was motivated to advocate transplants from aborted babies because his youngest child benefited from a fetal-to-fetal bone marrow transplant to correct a congenital deficiency that killed two of his other four children. His son did not benefit from an abortion, however, but received live fetal stem cells from an ectopic pregnancy. It remains to be seen whether the operation was successful.
Advocates of fetal tissue transplants argue that ectopic pregnancies and spontaneous miscarriages are too unpredictable and will not yield enough tissue for all the potential uses. Tissue must be fresh, disease free, and at the right age for it to grow and proliferate in its new site. The remains of aborted babies are needed, they say, to meet the demand.
Fetal tissue transplants are proposed as a treatment for a wide variety of heartbreaking ailments: Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, epilepsy, spinal injuries, stroke, diabetes, and hemophilia, as well as birth defects....
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