Essay, Research Paper
The use of Fetal Tissue in Research and Transplants
Fetal tissue research is done to provide information to society that will eventually lead to the prevention of some diseases and hopefully one day help to discover a cure to some incurable diseases. Right now researchers are doing fetal tissue research to obtain information in areas of fetal tissue transplantation, the development and production of new vaccines, and lastly information on various birth defects and how to prevent or cure them. Fetal tissue research has contributed to the nation’s knowledge on various diseases, new vaccines, and a possible treatment to help cure some incurable diseases; however, many ethical and legal concerns arise.
Each area of fetal research is done on three different types of fetuses: the live, nonviable aborted fetus, the fetus in utero, and the dead fetus. The first type of research done is on the live, nonviable, aborted fetus. This type of research is done to study the period of time in which a fetus can be kept alive after an abortion in order to obtain cells or organs for transplant (Levy 44).
A second type of fetus that doctors experiment on is the fetus in utero. This type of research is done by amniocentesis. Amniocentesis is the insertion of a needle into the abdominal wall and into the amniotic sac where it withdraws amniotic fluid to be tested. This type of research provides no direct involvement with the fetus; however, it is dangerous because it has the possibility of puncturing a sensitive organ. The process of amniocentesis provides doctors and researchers with information that detects sex-linked diseases and genetic disorders. Another way experimenters conduct tests on the fetus in utero is to give the mother specific drugs or treatment and then observe the effects on the aborted fetus. This way of researching the fetus in utero does have direct involvement with the fetus (Levy 44).
The third type of fetus used to experiment with is the dead fetus. The dead fetus provides information that can lead to the detection of fetal abnormalities and to help prevent birth defects and diseases in future fetuses (Levy 43).
As found in Robertson, fetal tissue is essential to medical research for the simple fact that there is no close substitute for fetal tissue. The reason why fetal tissue is so important to medical research is because fetal tissue is highly available. “Currently the fetal tissue used in transplants is retrieved from the one and a half million abortions performed annually in the United States to end unwanted pregnancies” (54). Fetal tissue is less prone to rejection. Due to its less specific immune response, it develops quickly, and has plasticity meaning it has the ability to mold or assume a desired form. Another reason fetal tissue is important to medical research is because it is less specialized, meaning it will be more likely to develop into any adult cell. Fetal tissue is also easy to culture (Maynard-Moody 51-53).
Fetal tissue from ectopic pregnancies, spontaneously aborted fetuses and stillbirths is not usable tissue. In most cases the tissue received from these fetuses generally is incapable of being used because the fetus has been dead for a few days and the tissue is no longer alive. Therefore the only source of fetal tissue to be researched and transplanted most comes from elective abortions.
A stillbirth occurs when the fetus dies in or after the twentieth week and is delivered. This kind of tissue is incapable of being transplanted because it has been dead in the body for an unknown amount of time and all the organs and tissues are dead. Besides the fact that the tissue is dead, the tissue would also be too old to be transplanted. Most fetal tissue being used for transplants needs to be retreived before the fetus is twelve weeks.
A spontaneous abortion also called a miscarriage is when the embryo or fetus dies and is unintentionally delivered. This type of tissue is insufficient because some major chromosomal defect or infection killed the fetus before it was born. Since the fetus was spontaneously aborted for being extremely unhealthy the tissue that would have been able to be transplanted if it was healthy is also unhealthy and would be no help to research or a transplant.
An ectopic pregnancy is when the embryo is implanted outside the uterus. According to Daniel J. Garry ectopic pregnancies occur at a rate of 16.8 per 1,000 reported pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies are resolved by surgery or are spontaneously aborted. This type of tissue is inadequate for research either because it is abnormal or usually has a defect like spinal bifida or growth retardation. Very rarely will tissue from an ectopic pregnancy be able to be used for research or transplantation purposes (72-73).
Steven Maynard-Moody feels that fetal tissue is being used more and more simply because doctors and scientists feel that there is such an abundant supply of fetal tissue from the frequency of abortions performed each year. And now that the abortions are taking place in hospitals where the tissue can be recovered and stored properly, doctors are more apt to use fetal tissue for transplants. Maynard-Moody also points out that recipients who are in need of a fetal tissue transplant will not have to wait as long as those who are in need of a heart or liver. Currently doctors are researching on using fetal tissue for diabetic patients, Alzheimers’ patients, and Parkinson’s patients.
In The Dilemma of the Fetus, scientists state that they study fetal tissue because fetal cells and tissues have special characteristics and have been a major contribution to their understanding of cell organization, disease resistance and fetal development. A recent study using fetal tissue studied the effects of smoking on the fetus (50-64).
Tissue retrieved from a fetus does not only go to transplant recipients; the majority of cells received from the fetus are researched to develop new vaccines, discover new diseases, and to test new drugs. One major breakthrough that came from fetal tissue research was in the 1950’s when researchers developed the Salk Anti-polio vaccine, which ended the polio epidemic (Maynard-Moody 11). This vaccine was discovered from experimentation with fetal kidney cells.
Yet another breakthrough that occurred was from a fetal tissue transplant took place in 1990. A woman who was pregnant with a little boy tested positive to the deadly genetic disorder called Hurler’s Syndrome. The child had the possibility to live if he received a fetal tissue transplant. This case was the first time ever a fetal tissue transplant was tried. This type of fetal tissue transplant was to take place while the child was still in his mother’s womb. The results were successful; the little boy’s body accepted the tissue from the transplant and produced the critical enzyme that saved his life. This case was a major breakthrough in fetal tissue research (Goldberd and Hollister 129-33).
Another benefit of fetal tissue transplants is still being researched. What scientists are trying to do is prove is that when fetal tissue is implanted into a patient who suffers from an incurable disease such as Parkinson’s the fetal cells [when implanted into the patient's brain] will develop and take on the role of the defective cells (Garry 118). Researchers are hoping that fetal cells will eventually be able to be implanted into a wide variety of patients with incurable diseases. For instance a patient with diabetes mellitus will be able to receive fetal pancreas cells.
Critics of fetal tissue transplants strongly argue that using fetal tissue in transplants from aborted fetuses would encourage abortion. The critics who argue this get their point across by claiming that using fetal tissue from aborted fetus makes abortion look less morally offensive and more easily tolerated. Their argument also continues to make points that it could possibly make abortion appear to be a positive act and that it would encourage abortions to occur that would not normally happen. The critics against abortion end their argument by saying that using fetal tissue in transplants would make the woman deciding to abort feel good about herself knowing that her abortion is going to help someone (Robertson 54-69).
Another group of critics against using fetal tissue for transplants make their argument in three short points. First by claiming that fetal tissue transplants would be an incentive for woman to want to abort their fetus and sell the tissue. Secondly, fetal tissue transplants would encourage women to volunteer to get pregnant and then abort the fetus in an effort to save a loved one’s life. Thirdly, fetal tissue transplants would increases the number of abortions by woman wanting to abort their child and donate the tissue and cells to help someone who is unrelated (Childress 1862).
The opposing group holds many strong points that clearly hold true to their belief that fetal tissue transplants do not encourage abortion. Their first point found in The Ethics of Organ Transplants states that the tissue used for fetal tissue transplants comes from the one and a half million abortions performed annually in the United States to end unwanted pregnancies, and as of now there is no need to have family members conceive and abort to produce fetal tissue. Robertson also points out that fetal tissue obtained for transplant purposes holds great hope for all in need (54-61).
In Biomedical Ethics, The American Jewish Congress Bio-ethics Task Force 143-50, clarify their point by saying, “It’s highly unlikely, even far fetched that a woman would choose abortion because she knows the fetal remains will be used in a transplant.” The American Jewish Congress Bio-ethics Task Force claims that woman choose to abort for personal reasons and not at any point do they say they want to have an abortion just to donate fetal tissue to help someone in need.
James Benedict suggests that fetal tissue transplants are nothing more than an extension of organ donation, something that has been going on for years. The only difference is that instead of receiving a whole organ (liver or kidney) the patient receives fetal tissue or cells to replace defective or missing tissue and cells, and for reasons unknown these fetal cells develop quickly and function normally (164).
An article in The Christian Century lists the guidelines set by the National Institute of Health regarding the use of fetal tissue for therapy and experimentation obtained from legal abortions. The following guidelines are as follows:
1. The donor and recipient will remain anonymous (this prevents fetal tissue being given to help a loved one)
2. The acceptance of payment is absolutely forbidden to the female who makes the tissue available (this eliminates the incentive to want to have an abortion to earn money)
3. A signed consent form to abort must be given before the option to donate fetal cells/tissue is brought up (this ensures that the decision to abort and the decision to donate fetal tissue is kept separate)
4. Even more likely to decrease the chance that people will not donate for money or to help others, there is NO guarantee that the fetal tissue will be used (Bendict 164).
Finally the last argument by those who feel that fetal tissue transplants will not encourage abortion is that “People in favor of using fetal tissue agree elective abortions are troubling, and could be considered a “sin” or “murder.” However, they do argue that this does not preclude the possibility of using the tissue, since organs and tissues for transplants typically come from tragic events, including murder. They claim that agreeing to the use of fetal tissue does not imply approval of past abortions or encouragement of future abortions, anymore than the transplant of a heart or kidney implies approval of- or encourages- drunk driving, domestic violence, or drive-by shootings” (Benedict 164).
Apart from all the ethical and moral controversies regarding fetal tissue transplants and research there have been legal controversies going on for years. Up until the Regan and Bush administrations, using fetal tissue for transplants just followed the pattern for the use and transfer of other transplantable tissues from cadavers. However, the Regan and Bush administrations banned the use of federal funding in the area of fetal tissue transplant research following deliberate abortions. Although, this ban did not apply to the use of federal funding for other aborted fetal research such as the development of vaccines, the discovery of new diseases, and the testing of new drugs (Childress 1862).
In a fight to try and lift the ban the Human Fetal Tissue Transplant Research Panel (HFTTRP) made a recommendation in 1988 to lift the ban of fetal tissue transplant research if there were safeguards and guidelines to separate the decision to abort and the decision to abort and donate as much as possible. The HFTTRP was unsuccessful, they were denied and the ban stayed in effect until 1993 when the Clinton administration lifted it. The removal of the ban was an exception to an international consensus that it was permissible within certain limits to use fetal tissue in transplant research (Childress1862).
Because of all the developments in the area of fetal tissue research, many diseases have been diagnosed, vaccines have been created to help stop the spread of diseases, new drugs have been discovered to help cure the ill, and patients have been given a chance at life by receiving a fetal tissue transplant. A few examples of the success in fetal tissue research and transplants would be the discovery of the Salk anti-polio vaccine in the 1950’s. Another success story was when a little boy who had been diagnosed with Hurdlers syndrome received a fetal tissue transplant while in utero and his body accepted the tissue and produced critical enzymes that saved his life.
Therefore, fetal tissue research is a good thing and the knowledge gained from it has been useful to the nation. How the researchers conduct their research does not break any laws and is conducted in a logical manner, which does not force anyone to abort their fetus to help science and technology. Fetuses donated for research and transplants are taken from the one and a half million fetuses aborted each year in the United States to end an unwanted pregnancy (Robertson 54). Researchers have guidelines and safeguards to follow to prevent any mishaps that might happen when a woman decides to abort. From all the concerns anti-abortionist have against the use fetal tissue in research and transplants, they have unknowingly benefited from vaccines during their lives.
The American Jewish Congress Bio-Ethics Task Force. “The Use of Fetal Tissue Would
Not Encourage Abortion.”: Biomedical Ethics. San Diego: Greenhouse, 1994.
Benedict, James. “The Use of Fetal Tissue: A Cautious Approval.” The Christian Century
Feb. 1998: 164-65.
Childress, James F. “Ethical and Legal Issues Regarding Cadavers.” Encyclopedia of
Garry, Daniel J., et al. “Fetal Tissue Is Essential to Medical Research.”: Biomedical
Ethics. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994.
—”Are There Really Alternatives to the Use of Fetal Tissue from Elective Abortion in
Transplantation Research?”: The Ethics of Organ Transplants. New York:
Goldberg, Jeff., Anne Hollister. “Fetal Tissue Research Offers Hope to Disease Victims.”:
Biomedical Ethics. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1994.
Levy, Charlotte. The Human Body and the Law: Legal and Ethical Considerations in
Human Experimentation. London: Oceana Publications, 1983.
Maynard-Moody, Steven. The Dilemma of the Fetus. New York: St. Martins, 1995.
Robertson, John A. “Rights, Symbolism, and Public Policy in Fetal Tissue Transplants.”:
The Ethics of Organ Transplants. New York: Prometheus, 1998.