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Science or Ethics?

By David Prentice, PhD | January 12, 2017

by David Prentice, PhD

Does science trump ethics? Do the ends justify the means? Should some trafficking in human body parts be countenanced in society, because of potential or speculative cures? These are the questions raised in regards to the issue of fetal tissue research, in particular using fetal tissue obtained from induced abortion. It’s been a year and a half since the shocking videos (validated as authentic by independent forensic investigators) about fetal tissue trafficking were released by the Center for Medical Progress. The videos revealed a gruesome underside to the already seamy abortion industry, showing negotiations behind the scenes for fetal livers, hearts, brains and other organs. The stomach-churning discussions led to a series of Congressional hearings and, finally, the formation of the House Select Panel on Infant Lives to investigate the trafficking in fetal body parts.

The House Select Panel recently released its report, compiling the evidence obtained from its year-long investigation, several hearings, subpoenas and background investigations. The Senate Judiciary Committee majority has also released its investigative report as well as referrals to the Justice Department. The voluminous reports detail a large number of concerning actions taken with regards to the issue, as well as referrals for legal action. The House Select Panel in particular has an entire chapter debunking the scientific myths that have been hurled in support of continued trafficking of fetal body parts for research. Much of the information clearly illuminates the unethical nature of fetal tissue research. Yet while the ethics are clear cut, some still try to confuse the public and the policymakers on the question of factual science versus a scientific “requirement” for aborted fetal tissue. Since it has been over a year since the first attempts at scientific justification for aborted fetal tissue were raised—and publicly shown to be meritless—the release of the Select Panel report provides a good opportunity to review the history and science of fetal tissue research.

The attempted justifications for aborted fetal tissue and fetal body parts revolve around three uses: transplants, vaccine production and basic research. Transplant of fetal tissue in attempts to treat disease have been attempted for almost a century, yet there is virtually no reported success. The more usual reports document significant adverse events. For example, in 2001, the first report of a full NIH-funded clinical trial using fetal tissue for Parkinson’s patients was prominently featured in the New York Times, with doctors’ descriptions of patients writhing, twisting and jerking with uncontrollable movements; the doctors called the results “absolutely devastating,” “tragic, catastrophic,” and labeled the results “a real nightmare.” Similar results have been reported for other trials. It probably is unsurprising that NIH has not funded fetal tissue transplantation for many years.

The myth of aborted fetal tissue use for vaccine production provides a glaring example of revisionist history. The use of fetal tissue for polio vaccine is the one usually attempted to be cited. A proof-of-principle experiment by Enders et al. in 1949 did indeed use fetal tissue to show that viruses (including polio) could be grown in culture, but their subsequent Nobel prize was not given for production of virus or vaccine. Both the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines were both produced using laboratory-cultured monkey tissue. Cultured cell lines cells that have been grown in the laboratory for years, even decades, now are used for all viral vaccines. This also highlights another deception used in the fetal tissue justifications: cell lines originally derived from aborted fetal tissue are fetal tissue. Of course, even common sense shows this as fallacious; cells that have been grown in culture for decades are not a “tissue” or an “organ” or a “body part” in any sense of the terms. The decades-old cell lines are certainly ethically tainted, not to mention antiquated and inefficient. But the investigations never dealt with such cell lines nor with abortions that occurred long ago, but rather with abortions and the trafficking of fresh fetal livers, brains, hearts and other organs. To conflate the two is designed as a confusing deception. No fresh aborted fetal tissue has been used for vaccine production, nor is it required.

Finally, basic research and the potential for cures are held out as a justification for continued trafficking in aborted fetal organs and body parts. These claims lay out hope to those in desperate need as a way to cling to the grisly practice of using fetal brains and other organs for science. But again, there is not only no ethical justification, but also no scientific justification that would require aborted fetal tissue for research. There are, in fact, a huge number of alternatives, frankly better than fetal tissue. Adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) have far outpaced fetal tissue (as well as embryonic stem cells) in their basic research uses. Adult stem cells are the only successful stem cell in clinical practice, now treating more than 70,000 patients a year. Organoids constructed from adult stem cells, cord blood stem cells and iPS cells now replicate normal organ development and function. There is no valid reason for continued use of the antiquated science of fetal tissue research. A more complete discussion of the history and research can be found at the Charlotte Lozier Institute website.

Ethics and science can go together, and their combination produces real innovation and useful therapies without breaking principles.

Related Resources

Human Stem Cell Research
and Use Ethics Statement


Scientific Demagoguery in the Stem Cell Wars by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)

The Whole Truth About Stem Cells and Related Therapies by David Prentice, PhD

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