The Use of Fetal Tissue: A Cautious Approval

By Benedict, James | The Christian Century, February 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Use of Fetal Tissue: A Cautious Approval


Benedict, James, The Christian Century


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. It will be up to the 1998 Annual Conference Standing Committee to recommend what future action, if any, should be taken.

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 strong incentives for abortion.

The guidelines also require that signed consent to abort be obtained before the option of fetal tissue donation is discussed. The goal is to keep separate the decision to abort and the decision to allow the fetal tissue to be used. Indeed, the woman seeking the abortion does not know with certainty that her fetal tissue will be used, thus limiting the significance of general altruism as an incentive to abort.

Fetal tissue obtained under these guidelines is used or may one day be used to treat a wide range of conditions, most notably neural, hematological and endocrine disorders. The condition which has received the most publicity is Parkinson's Syndrome, which commonly manifests itself among older persons. This has led to the charge that fetal tissue use sacrifices the very young in order to benefit those who have already had a long, full life. Other promising uses of fetal tissue, however, include the treatment of conditions hardly restricted to the elderly: diabetes, spinal cord damage and blood diseases.

In many ways, fetal tissue transplantation is merely an extension of organ donation, which has been under way for decades. Instead of replacing whole organs, however, fetal tissue therapy replaces groups of missing or defective cells. Fetal tissue has two advantages over tissue from adults or even newborns. First, fetal cells are relatively undifferentiated and therefore more versatile in their ability to establish residency and function normally in a recipient. Second, fetal cells are less readily recognized as foreign by the recipient's immune system and therefore are less likely to be rejected.

Those who favor using fetal tissue often concede that elective abortion is morally troubling. Some call it a sin, or even "murder." But they argue that this does not preclude the possibility of using the tissue, since organs and tissues for transplant 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, any more than the transplantation of a heart or kidney implies approval of--or encourages--drunk driving, domestic violence or drive--by shootings.

Yet as opponents to the use of fetal tissue are quick to point out, the use of tissue from elective abortions differs in at least two important ways from the common practice of using organs and tissues from people who have died.

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