The Tissue Issue: Take It Slow on Fetal Transplants

By McCloskey, Liz Leibold | Commonweal, March 26, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Tissue Issue: Take It Slow on Fetal Transplants


McCloskey, Liz Leibold, Commonweal


What has always been true about politics is so true it's a truism: when the votes are counted, there are winners and losers. Ambivalence is little valued when the vote is taken and at the end of the day there is room only for unabashed celebration or morose lamentation. But as the issue of fetal tissue transplantation research is brought to closure, at least temporarily, it is not clear who has won and who has lost.

A few weeks ago I went to a party in Northwest Washington held to celebrate the lifting of the ban on fetal tissue research. All the players were there: Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who led the congressional charge to remove restrictions on using federal funds; the Reverend Guy Walden, a profile minister whose own family had benefited from experimental fetal tissue transplantation therapy; Joan Samuelson, a Parkinson's patient, who had toiled endlessly to see that research using fetal tissue be continued; and many others. I understood them, but I still felt out of place at this celebration and stayed only a short while.

On January 22, the day that President Bill Clinton issued the executive order lifting the ban on fetal tissue research, National Right to Life condemned his decision saying it would lead to "harvesting these babies for spare parts." This was also a sentiment with which I could not fully agree.

As a legislative assistant from 1989 to 1992 for John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), a committed prolife Senator and Episcopal priest, I had numerous conversations with him about this issue. At first, I felt strongly that he should support lifting the ban on fetal tissue research. But by the time it came to a vote in 1992, I was feeling a degree of uncertainty and discomfort that I had not felt before. Now that the ban has been lifted only one thing is clear about my own viewpoint: I am ambivalent.

I had originally been swayed by the view that abortion was a separate issue from fetal tissue transplant. No matter what one's view on abortion, fetal tissue transplantation research could be supported. The argument took a variety of forms: Abortion is legal, and probably always will be, so we may as well bring some good out of it. (As Senator Strom Thurmond [R-S.C.] recently said in congressional debate, "This is not about taking lives, but saving lives.") Also: Accepting a donated organ from a suicide or murder victim doesn't make suicide or murder acceptable. There were also powerful emotional appeals by people suffering a variety of ailments describing the amazing potential therapies that would come from the use of fetal tissues. Since such claims had as yet no solid scientific support, all the more reason, proponents argued, to put scientists to work on the research.

Finally, proponents relied heavily on the recommendations of the Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel. They never neglected to emphasize that it was a Reagan-appointed advisory panel with some prolife members. The panel had approved the research in December 1988 with certain safeguards: the tissues could not be sold for profit; informed consent for the tissue research could only be sought after a woman had made the abortion decision; a woman could not designate a recipient for the tissue. That the panel approved the research with only a few dissenting voices was seen by proponents as a knockdown, clincher argument. (No doubt, if the same panel had reached a different conclusion, research supporters would have charged that the panel was a political body with only an advisory role. …

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