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Ethics of fetal tissue research

By C. Brent Boles, MD | August 06, 2015

Excerpted from "Why We Still Need Fetal-Tissue Research," Time. July 21, 2015 — Sting videos that claim to implicate Planned Parenthood in the illegal practice to selling fetal tissue for a profit prompted a Congressional investigation of the organization. But it doesn’t mean that research on fetal tissue is wrong. Or that it should be stopped.

Fetal tissue is valuable for medical research; the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on fetal research in 2014, and fetal tissue has contributed to vaccines for polio, rubella and chicken pox. In the video, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services, notes that the fees Planned Parenthood charges are within laws that govern fetal tissue procurement; the fees cover the expenses of handling, storing and shipping the material, not for the material itself.

But there’s a blurring of the ethical and political lines here that is both intentional — and intentionally misleading. It’s one that’s always shadowed anything involving fetal tissue in this country.

There’s no evidence on the video that Planned Parenthood makes a profit from fetal tissue. Nucatola is recorded as saying the organization pays anywhere from $30 to $100 per specimen, and that those fees cover administrative and handling costs, not the cost of the tissue itself.

With embryonic stem cell research, which involves use of embryos that couples donate for research, Debra Mathews, assistant director for science programs at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University notes that there were discussions about the ethical and moral questions involved. “I don’t know that we have had robust conversations about fetal tissue,” she says. “It’s very difficult to talk about. Abortion politics in this country make it very difficult to have discussions about the use of these tissues.”

“There is important research, good research, involving fetal tissues,” says Mathews. “But we have not been transparent about it. In so far as this increases the transparency, and helps us to have a conversation about the research being done, and folks are following the rules that do exist, I think that’s important.”


Dr. C. Brent BolesBoard Certified Obstetrics and Gynecology C. Brent Boles, MD: “The author of this article makes two serious errors in her defense of Planned Parenthood and fetal-tissue research. Pro-abortion forces always want to avoid any discussion of the moral status of the baby and rely on the ‘abortion is legal so get over it’ type of argument. We don't kill humans after birth for organs to transplant and tissue to study. Not everyone agrees that the fetus has no moral standing.

“Her second error is falsely promoting the ‘promise’ of fetal tissue research. There are two problems with that position. First, it is never deemed moral or ethical in any other setting to buy and sell human body parts—even when the body parts come from executed convicted criminals. What Planned Parenthood's own people have shown on video is not acceptable. Secondly, the ‘promise’ of cures is a false one. Despite decades of time and many millions of dollars spent on research for stem cells derived from embryonic and fetal sources, we have no successful treatments. Similar efforts focused on adult stem cell sources have resulted in more than 70 successful treatments.”


CMDA’s Ethics Statement on the Moral Worth of Human Life
CMDA’s Ethics Statement on Human Stem Cell Research
Scientific Demagoguery in the Stem Cell Wars by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)
Americans United for Life - Special Report: The Case for Investigating Planned Parenthood
Alliance Defending Freedom - Investigate Their Plan: A revealing look at what Planned Parenthood is really about
The Daily Signal - The Truth About Defunding Planned Parenthood and Women’s Access to Health Care

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