Forbidding Fruits of Fetal-Cell Research: Ethical Issues Raised by Promising Therapy

By Weiss, Rick | Science News, November 5, 1988 | Go to article overview

Forbidding Fruits of Fetal-Cell Research: Ethical Issues Raised by Promising Therapy


Weiss, Rick, Science News


Forbidding Fruits of Fetal-Cell Research

More than 4,000 times each day in the United States, an unwanted pregnancy is terminated by abortion. Despite such frequency, the 10-minute procedure can hardly be characterized as routine. Indeed, 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision affirming a woman's constitutional right to abortion, a national debate over the ethics of the procedure continues unabated.

Now, reluctantly, research scientists find themselves swept into the controversy, as they seek to extract from the remnants of aborted fetuses raw materials for a variety of biochemical cures. Fetal cells, when transplanted into the organs of ailing adults, show unique promise as a treatment for a range of disorders, including insulin-dependent (Type I) diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But scientists' attempts to make use of this controversial "national resource" have evoked a cry from some theologians, anti-abortionists and others who argue that harvesting living cells from intentionally aborted fetuses lies beyond the moral pale.

It's bad enough that 1.5 million fetuses are "deliberately killed" each year in the United States, says Kay James of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C. "We must not compound this gigantic moral and ethical lapse by weaving this slaughter into the warp and woof of modern medical management."

Fetal-cell scientists reject such objections as a misguided threat to medical research. They acknowledge the issue disturbs many people -- even within medicine -- and that if alternatives existed, fetal tissue might best be left alone. After all, "Who but a masochist would risk the wrath of anti-abortionists for no good reason?" asks John A. Robertson, an attorney and consultant to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who has studied the legality of fetal-tissue research.

But the bottom line, many researchers say, is that fetal cells have properties unlike those of any other cells. So while government should regulate fetal-tissue research to ensure ethical practices, they say, there is no reason to waste such a potentially beneficial biological resource obtained from a perfectly legal procedure.

"Medical research should be given a higher stature in our society than being a pawn in the debate over abortion," says Robin Duke, co-chairman of the Population Crisis Committee in New York City. "To hold hostage a nation and medical research for a minority group who are anti-abortion is to my mind a very grave mistake."

Medical researchers' heavy reliance on federal funding made it inevitable that the debate would catch the interest of congressional committees and Reagan administration officials. The issue came into focus earlier this year when researchers at the NIH sought permission to perform the first U.S. transplant of fetal brain cells into a human being, a patient with Parkinson's disease. That request went right to the top of the U.S. Public Health Service, and drew a rapid reply.

In a March 22 memo to NIH Director James B. Wyngaarden, Assistant Secretary of Health Robert E. Windom wrote: "This proposal raises a number of questions -- primarily ethical and legal -- that have not been satisfactorily addressed, either within the Public Health Service or within society at large."

Windom ordered the NIH to convene a panel of experts to examine the medical, legal and ethical issues relevant to fetal-tissue research. Pending the outcome of the advisory panel's assessment, he concluded, "I am withholding my approval of the proposed experiment, and future experiments, in which there is performed transplantation of human tissue from induced abortions."

In response to Windom's directive, an advisory panel of scientists, religious leaders, lawyers and bioethicists met twice at the NIH in September and October for a total of five emotionally charged days. In the course of these deliberations, dozens of interested individuals and organizations provided their views to the panel. …

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