The Ethics of Organ Transplants: The Current Debate

By Arthur L. Caplan; Daniel H. Coelho | Go to book overview

6. Are There Really Alternatives
to the Use of Fetal Tissue
from Elective Abortions in
Transplantation Research?

Daniel J. Garry, Arthur L. Caplan,
Dorothy E. Vawter, and Warren Kearney

Human fetal tissue has been described as having tremendous plasticity and availability, and as possibly being less prone to rejection than adult tissue. These properties have led many researchers to consider it a possible source of transplantable tissue for patients with incurable debilitating diseases, such as diabetes mellitus and Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's diseases.

The use of human fetal tissue in research involving transplantation in human recipients has become the center of a heated controversy in the United States. In March 1988 the Department of Health and Human Services placed a moratorium on the funding of research involving the transplantation of tissue obtained during induced abortions. Later that year, an advisory panel of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that the use of such tissue is acceptable public policy under certain conditions. 1 Despite this decision, the moratorium has been extended indefinitely by the secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan. Congressional efforts to overturn it have been unsuccessful. In vetoing an attempt in 1992 to overturn the moratorium, President Bush and many current and former administration officials argued that alternative sources of human fetal tissue should be used in transplantation research. 2 The assistant secretary of health, James 0. Mason, and the NIH director, Bernadine Healy, maintain that ectopic pregnancies and spontaneously aborted fetuses are "feasible" sources of tissue. Consequently, millions of dollars have been budgeted and the NIH has solicited proposals and awarded funding to establish a bank of fetal tissue obtained from ectopic pregnancies and spontaneous abortions that is suitable for transplantation research.

____________________
Originally published in The New England Journal of Medicine 327, no. 22 ( November 26, 1992). Copyright © 1992 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

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