By / Aug 25

Recently, the Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board released its recommendations for funding based on proposals submitted to the National Institute of Health. This board, tasked with the oversight of projects that would require the use of fetal tissue, recommended that the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar withhold funding from all but one project. This has led to charges that the board is bringing ideology to bear on an objective process. However, the board is made up of experts across the ideological spectrum who weighed the proposals and made recommendations based on the merits or deficiencies of the proposals. 

Background: Defining fetal tissue research and a history of the oversight board

Fetal tissue research is the use of cells “that are harvested for the purpose of establishing cell lines or for use as transplantation material and other purposes.” This process of harvesting cells can be done through induced abortions or from miscarriages, but the mother must consent for the cells to be used in NIH proposals and research. 

The Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board was announced in June of 2019 when the Trump administration banned the current use of fetal tissue in federally funded projects. Previously, the process had been for grants to go from the National Institutes of Health to the Secretary for final approval. However, with the creation of the new board, previous projects were halted, and all new proposals had to go through an additional layer of ethical review. This board, made up of 15 individuals who meet specific qualifications, and which must be made up of a broad range of experts, considered the ethical ramifications of the research and the necessity of the fetal tissue research. Their recent meeting recommended withholding funds from 13 proposals previously approved by the NIH and the funding of one proposal. It will now be up to Secretary Azar to make the final decision under HHS rules.

The members of the board include scientists, theologians, ethicists, and medical professionals. There are a range of perspectives on the board raging from those opposed to fetal research and those who are advocates of the procedure. One member in particular, Ben Mitchell, should be noted because of his expertise in this area. He is a Southern Baptist bioethicist, a member of the ERLC’s Research Institute, and the former Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.

What recommendations were made?

Reviewing the recommendations of the board, there are several things to note about the proposals that were rejected and the one that was approved. Though there is no identifying information about the proposals, it is clear that, despite the ideological diversity of the board, there was not much disagreement on board about most proposals. When comparing the votes, only two of the proposals received relatively close votes. The other 12 ranged from 10-5 to 15-0 voting to withhold funds. So it is clear that on a board containing members across the ideological spectrum, a clear supermajority was reached as to the viability of these studies in almost every case. 

When looking at the reasons that the proposals were rejected, the participants noted a number of problems that caused them to vote as they did. These ranged from procedural and privacy concerns about the research to larger scale questions such as the manner in which the tissue would be obtained, whether another type of tissue could be used, and even the concern that one institution could be profiting from the procurement of the tissue. Also, it should be noted that several members of the board made clear that they would be willing to support the proposal if the problematic uses of tissue were removed or corrected. 

The board voted 9-6 for the proposal they recommended funding. The proposal is for a study of alternatives to fetal tissue and substitutes. In a study of this type, some fetal tissue is necessary as a control group so as to judge the experimental group. However, the recommendation clarifies that this study would be using existing fetal tissue which had been stored rather than acquiring new sources. Thus, it would not run afoul of causing the researchers to participate in abortion or other procedures to procure the samples. and if successful, it would eliminate the need for future research with fetal tissue by providing an alternative. 

How should Christians think about fetal tissue research?

There are several ethical considerations when it comes to fetal tissue research for the Christian. The first is the manner in which the tissue was originally collected. As noted above, fetal tissue can be taken from miscarriages or induced abortions. Christians ought to reject any willful taking of the life of a child for medical research purposes because of the child’s right to life. However, in the cases of miscarriages, there is room for disagreement among Christians about how to use the cells, just as in the case of individuals who donate their organs after death or bodies for medical research.

The other concern is what is to be done with cell lines that are already in existence from previously harvested tissue. Some of these were taken from aborted children, and thus were collected through unethical and immoral means. But does this mean that all research from the stem cell line must be rejected? While there is room for debate in this area, the salient ethical concern is whether an individual is participating in the evil of abortion by benefiting from the research of tissue collected by immoral means. As with vaccines developed with stem cell lines from aborted children, the individual who chooses to receive the vaccine is not morally culpable for the methods used to create the vaccine, but they should pursue ethical vaccine creation with alternatives to fetal tissue. 

In general, Christians should oppose the use of fetal tissue in research because of the way it incentivizes the marketing of aborted human fetal tissue. Though there are ways to obtain the tissue ethically, as with the consent of parents after a miscarriage, it is impossible to avoid the way this practice incentivizes the treatment of children as tools for scientific experimentation. One abortion provider, after intense public backlash following horrific videos detail practices for obtaining the tissue, said that it would no longer attempt to recoup the $45-60 that it receives as reimbursement for the tissue collection. When they made that statement in 2015, that $45 (taking the lower estimate) would have netted the abortion provider, if half of their 140,000 abortions resulted in fetal tissue to be sold, an additional $3 million. Christians should oppose this commodification of children and a Darwinistic worldview struggle that defines individuals by their utility rather than their intrinsic worth.

Ethics, science, and pro-life policies

For these reasons, the ERLC is grateful for the careful consideration the advisory board clearly carried out with respect to the proposals before it. The ERLC applauds the work of the board in ensuring an ethical approach to such a sensitive subject. 

Some detractors of the board have castigated it as a group which has brought ideology to bear on the rational and objective sciences. However, it should be noted that these ethical review boards arise out of a history of scientists objectifying individuals and populations and treating them as subjects for research rather than individuals possessing unique dignity and worth, most notably the notorious Tuskegee Study in the early 20th century. There is a need for ethical oversight when it comes to human research, especially when vulnerable populations are involved. 

Though there are cases where fetal tissue can be obtained ethically, as in the case of miscarriages, there is also the danger of incentivizing the death and sale of children through fetal tissue research. Thus, it is imperative that a board such as this review proposals and ensure that a culture of death is not expanded under the banner of improving life for the rest of humanity. We cannot sacrifice the weakest for our own benefit—that is a Darwinistic outlook that sees power and might as the standard of morality and defines a child in terms of his or her usefulness, not their intrinsic worth. The work that the advisory board is doing helps to promote an ethical approach to research that defends the rights of the most vulnerable.

By / Sep 28

What just happened?

Last month, CNS News reported that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had signed a new contract to acquire “fresh” human fetal tissue which would be transplanted into “humanized mice” so that these mice will have a functioning “human immune system.”

According to a presolicitation notice, the federal government intended to solicit and negotiate directly with Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR) “to acquire Tissue for Humanized Mice” and that ABR is the “only company that can provide the human fetal tissue needed to continue the ongoing research being led by the FDA.”

However, after objections were made by pro-life groups, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the contract was being terminated and that the agency is “now conducting an audit of all acquisitions involving human fetal tissue to ensure conformity with procurement and human fetal tissue research laws and regulations.”

Who is Advanced Bioscience Resources?

Advanced Bioscience Resources, Inc. (ABR), is a for-profit biotech supply company that for more than a decade has partnered with Planned Parenthood clinics to purchase human fetal parts.

In a 2015 investigative series on Planned Parenthood’s selling of aborted fetal tissue, the Center for Medical Progress released a undercover video which showed an ABR vender saying intact fetuses “just fell out” during abortions.

What is fetal tissue, and how is used?

A human fetus (Latin for “offspring”) is the stage of human development from the embryo stage (the end of the eighth week after conception, when the major structures have formed) until birth. When the fetus dies, either naturally or by abortion, the tissue (including intact organs) can be legally donated for research purposes.

Fetal tissue—obtained both ethically and unethically—has been used to develop life-saving vaccines. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for instance, was awarded for a polio vaccine that was developed from fetal kidney cells. And fetal cells were used in the production of a widely used vaccine for measles. In both cases, the tissue was obtained from spontaneous abortions (i.e., miscarriages) and ectopic pregnancies. Cells from aborted fetuses, however, have been used in a number of more recent vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis, measles, mumps, poliomyelitis, rabies, rubella, and small pox. (For more on the ethics of vaccines, see this article.) Fetal tissue from aborted fetuses has also been used in cosmetics and anti-aging creams.

Fetal cells were also used in the 1980s and 1990s for experimental treatments on diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. But because studies showed they weren’t effective, research using fetal cells for biomedical treatments has largely been abandoned.

“We don't use a lot fetal tissue today, and when it’s used it’s mainly for studying some fetal disease and fetal development,” says Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s not a key part or major part of research in the U.S.”

What laws cover the transfer of fetal tissue?

The transfer of human cadaveric tissue, including fetal tissue, is governed by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), which was adopted by all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An Institute of Medicine report notes that, in general, the UAGA permits either parent, subject to the known objection of the other, to donate fetal tissue, following spontaneous or deliberate abortions, for research, education, or transplantation. However, some states restrict the use of fetal materials following induced abortions in some research. Federal regulations permit research “involving the dead fetus, macerated fetal material, or cells, tissue, or organs excised from a dead fetus . . . in accordance with any applicable State or local laws regarding such activities” (45 CFR 46.210).

Is it illegal to sell fetal tissue?

It is illegal to directly sell fetal tissue. However, companies involved in the acquisition, transfer, and disposition of the tissue can be compensated for their efforts. Two laws directly cover this issue.

42 U.S. Code 274e prohibits the purchase of human organs, including any organs derived from a fetus, for the purposes of human transplantation. Because the fetal tissue is likely to be used for research purposes rather than be transplanted into a living human, this law most likely does not apply.

42 U.S. Code 289g covers the prohibitions regarding human fetal tissue and states that, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”

In each of these laws, the term “valuable consideration” does not include “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

42 U.S. Code 289g prevents the solicitation of fetal tissue for transplantation and the “solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses gestated for research purposes.” What this means is that a buyer cannot solicit fetal tissue for transplantation or use tissue from a fetus that is known to have been created solely for the purpose of aborting the baby and extracting its tissue and/or organs.

But this seems to cover only human tissue that was acquired when the pregnancy was “deliberately initiated to provide such tissue.” Tissue donated after an abortion for research purposes is completely legal under federal law.

Is fetal tissue donation ethical?

The morality of fetal tissue donation primarily hinges on questions about how the child died and the informed consent of the donating parents.

Most Christian ethicists agree that fetal tissue donation is not inherently unethical if the tissue was obtained from a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy in which the fetus implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus) and was willingly donated by the parent. Such donations would be similar to a parent agreeing to donate the organs of an infant or a child that had died by natural causes.

The donations are morally tainted, however, when the tissue is derived from a fetus that has been killed in the womb. Allowing and condoning such donations makes us indirectly morally complicit in the act of abortion, and conveys a sense of approval for an ongoing regime that sanctions the killing of the unborn. As bioethicists James Bopp and James Burtchaell have said, “whatever the researcher's intentions may be, by entering into an institutionalized partnership with the abortion industry as a supplier of preference, he or she becomes complicit, though after the fact, with the abortions that have expropriated the tissue for his or her purposes.”

Similarly, there is disagreement about the role of informed consent. There is an almost universal agreement that if a fetus died of natural causes that a parent should be able to donate fetal tissue unless the other parent objects. Additionally, many also contend, as James F. Childress notes, that, “the pregnant woman's consent should be necessary for donation—that is, the father should not be able to authorize the donation by himself, and the mother should always be asked before fetal tissue is used.”

There is no unanimity of agreement, though, on the issue of consent when the tissue is obtained as the result of an abortion. Some ethicists believe that when the woman has an abortion she gives up moral (if not legal) right to act as guardian and proxy of the cadaveric remains. Others contend that since the dead fetus has no rights or interests that need protecting, the maternal woman maintains both the moral and legal right to decide, by informed consent, how the tissue should be disposed.

By / Sep 1

The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) has released the ninth video in an investigative series on Planned Parenthood’s selling of aborted fetal tissue. This video focuses on Advanced Bioscience Resources, Inc. (ABR), a for-profit biotech supply company that has been partnered with Planned Parenthood clinics to purchase human fetal parts for more than a decade.

The video features undercover conversations with Perrin Larton, the Procurement Manager for ABR. Larton is shown describing ABR’s fetal tissue harvesting practice to a prospective buyer. “I literally have had women come in and they’ll go in the O.R. and they’re back out in 3 minutes, and I’m going, ‘What’s going on?’ Oh yeah, the fetus was already in the vaginal canal whenever we put her in the stirrups, it just fell out,” she explains of situations where there has been a great enough degree of cervical dilation to procure an intact fetus

“What I hope happens out of [these videos],” says ERLC president Russell Moore, “is not just that we act in public justice and defund Planned Parenthood but also that we start to shape and form consciences to do away with the violence of abortion.”

 

Other videos in CMP’s investigative series: 

Planned Parenthood Uses Partial-Birth Abortions to Sell Baby Parts (July 14, 2015)

Second Planned Parenthood Senior Executive Haggles Over Baby Parts Prices, Changes Abortion Methods (July 21, 2015)

Human Capital, Episode 1: Planned Parenthood’s Black Market in Baby Parts (July 28, 2015)

Planned Parenthood VP Says Fetuses May Come Out Intact, Agrees Payments Specific to the Specimen (July 30, 2015)

Intact Fetuses “Just a Matter of Line Items” for Planned Parenthood TX Mega-Center (August 4, 2015)

• Human Capital, Episode 2: Inside the Planned Parenthood Supply Site (August 12, 2015)

Human Capital, Episode 3: Planned Parenthood’s Custom Abortions for Superior Product (August 19, 2015)

• StemExpress Wants “Another 50 Livers a Week,” Financial Benefits for Abortion Clinics (August 25, 2015)

Recent ERLC articles on abortion and Planned Parenthood: 

Planned Parenthood and the Atrocity of Corpse-Selling – Russell Moore

Planned Parenthood at the Cross – Russell Moore

Planned Parenthood Vs. Jesus Christ – Russell Moore

#DefundPP: From Hashtags to Healing – Daniel Darling

Outraged at Planned Parenthood? Here are 6 Things You Can Do Now – Daniel Darling

10 Numbers You Should Know About Planned Parenthood – Joe Carter

• The sale of fetal body parts: gruesome—and shockingly legal – Joe Carter

How to contact your legislators about Planned Parenthood – Justin Taylor

ERLC and Focus on the Family are hosting the first ever Evangelicals for Life event next year in Washington DC on January 21-22nd, featuring Russell Moore, Roland Warren, David Platt, Eric Metaxas, Kelly Rosati, Ron Sider and others.