By / Dec 15

Several COVID-19 treatments and vaccines have come under scrutiny because their development included testing possibly using abortive fetal cells. Here is what you should know about the fetal tissue cells and the ethical concern about using them to develop therapeutics and vaccines. 

What are fetal tissue cells, and how are they 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 an elective abortion, the tissue (including intact organs) can be legally donated for research purposes.

As Christians committed to the cause of human dignity, we affirm that a human life begins at the moment of conception. Further, we recognize that every human life, even in the earliest or most advanced stages, bears all the rights and dignity of a person. Therefore, the use of fetal tissue in medical research and treatments is a matter of deep concern for believers.

Fetal tissue can be used in biomedical research for transplantation material and other purposes, but is more often connected to the creation of “immortalized” cell lines. Immortalized cell lines are established by culturing fetal cells in such a way that they continue growing and multiplying in laboratory dishes indefinitely. These cells can then be used for such activities as testing a drug’s ability to damage genetic material or to test the effects of specific viral infection.  

While immortalized cell lines began with fetal cells, they no longer contain fetal body parts, and no fetal tissue remains. No cells remain from the original fetal tissue. 

Fetal tissue—obtained both ethically and unethically—has been used to develop life-saving vaccines and therapeutic treatments for diseases such as cancer. For example, the 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for instance, was awarded for a polio vaccine that was developed from fetal kidney cells. Fetal cells were also used in the production of a widely used vaccine for measles. In both cases, the tissue was obtained from spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies. Cells from aborted fetuses, however, have been used in a number of more recent vaccines for chickenpox, hepatitis, measles, mumps, poliomyelitis, rabies, rubella, and smallpox. Fetal tissue from aborted fetuses has also been used in cosmetics and anti-aging creams.

As Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says, “Chances are if you have had a medical intervention in this country or pretty much any other country, you have benefited from the use of these cell lines in some way.”

Were fetal cells used in the experimental treatment for COVID?

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals manufactured an experimental antibody cocktail known as REGN-COV2. Regeneron has clarified that the company tested the effectiveness of REGN-COV2 by creating a “pseudovirus” mimicking the actual one. One element of the pretend virus is a cell line known as HEK293T. 

HEK293T is a widely used immortalized cell line that was made from fetal tissue acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records pertaining to the origins of HEK293T were lost, so it is not know whether the tissue came from a spontaneous miscarriage or an elective abortion.

In either case, it’s important to distinguish between “fetal tissue cells” and “cells derived from a long chain that arose from cells in fetal tissue.” The HEK293T cells are no longer fetal tissue cells. 

Were cells derived from fetal cells used in the creation of COVID-19 vaccines?

In addition to the use on REGN-COV2, at least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines being developed in America use cells from HEK293T cells or PER.C6, a cell line developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. 

The vaccines by Pfizera and Moderna recently approved by the FDA used HEK293T cells in the testing process, but not in the production of the vaccines themselves.

Is it immoral to use treatments and vaccines developed using aborted fetal cells?

Christians should always prefer medical treatments that have no connection to elective abortions. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the approval of at least one vaccine for use in the United States, it is important to understand whether taking a vaccine that utilized (or potentially utilized) aborted fetal cells is morally permissible.

A common way of addressing this question is to determine what type of cooperation is undertaken in the evil act of abortion. To cooperate in evil, the cooperator contributes in some way to the wrongful action of the principal agent, either by formal cooperation or material cooperation.

Formal cooperation happens when a person cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention, while material cooperation occurs when the person cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing the evil intention. While formal cooperation is always evil, making a determination on material cooperation depends on other additional factors. 

For example, if the abortion was conducted in order to harvest tissues that were to be used for the purpose of creating a cell line, then it would clearly be immoral. But in the case of  HEK293T, even if an abortion occured it was not carried out for that reason, and the tissue was acquired for the purpose of medical research only after the death of the child occurred for other reasons. This has significant consequences for determining whether such research is either licit or immoral.

To determine the morality of using the cells, it is helpful to compare it to another situation: the use of organs from a person who has been murdered. If a doctor were to offer to transplant a kidney or heart from the murder victim into a Christian, we would likely not have any objection. The primary concern would be whether the victim consented to organ donation prior to their death. 

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 donation of fetal tissue may be morally tainted, though, when the tissue is derived from a fetus that has been killed in the womb. Allowing and condoning such donations of tissue derived from abortion to continue would make us indirectly morally complicit in the act of abortion, conveying a sense of approval for an ongoing regime that sanctions the killing of the unborn. 

That raises the question of whether the use of cells from HEK293T would promote abortion in just such a way. While pro-life Christians may disagree on how to answer that question, it is unlikely that the use of the HEK293T cell line will lead to additional children being murdered in the womb in order to expand the number of fetal tissue cell lines. The reason is that it is completely unnecessary, and medically inexpedient, to create new cell lines from aborted children. As Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a Catholic biomedical researcher, explains

. . . HEK293 is an established cell line. What this means is that these cells have been used and studied by biologists for nearly half a century. They are well characterized, and they have been validated for their safety. I point this out because it helps explain why it is unheard of for a vaccine manufacturer to seek out new human fetal cells from a recent abortion. Such novel fetal cells would be uncharacterized, unvalidated, and unapproved by regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human vaccine production. Why waste time, effort, and money to obtain, characterize, and validate new human fetal cells when the classic fetal cell lines obtained decades ago like HEK293 are readily and cheaply available? 

Currently, the use of the HEK293T cells in biomedical research is not increasing the number of abortions that are being carried out every year. If we were to see evidence of that happening, however, it would change the moral calculation.

The remaining question is whether accepting the use of HEK293T cells would potentially be cooperating with the killing of the child in the 1970s. For a number of reasons, many if not most Christian bioethicists would argue that it is not (assuming an abortion even occured). The primary reason being that this situation is morally analogical to the case of the murder victim/organ donor. No one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder. 

For this reason, Christians are not morally culpable if they use treatments and vaccines that were developed using such cells, even if the cells originated in aborted fetal tissue. As David Prentice, vice president and research director of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, says, “We would prefer they not use the controversial cell line even in the testing, because there are other alternatives. But that testing on the side doesn’t affect me in terms of the recipient of the drug.” Ethicist Christopher O. Tollefsen also adds, “Because researchers may ethically use the HEK cell lines to develop vaccines, people can of course ethically use a vaccine should it be developed from the HEK cell lines.”

For more on the ethics of the COVID-19 vaccines:

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 / Jul 14

Earlier today, an undercover video released by the Center for Medical Progress shows a national-level executive of Planned Parenthood admitting that the abortion provider sells intact fetal body parts.

The video is posted below. If you haven’t watched it already, I’d recommend you do. Warning: it is profoundly disturbing. You will want to read the rest of this article to help explain how this practice exists and why it is still, sadly and shockingly, legal.

The discussion in the video is graphic, gruesome, and disturbing. What’s even more shocking is that this practice may actually be legal under current federal law.

The following is an attempt to examine the contents of this video in the context of the law. I’m grateful for the Center for Medical Progress for exposing this practice. They have performed and invaluable service by creating this video. I think we should clearly understand the truth of the situation, not because it demonstrates that the horrific practice of Planned Parenthood is still, unbelievably, protected under federal law.

Selling Fetal Body Parts

In light of the discussion, the video mentions two federal laws related to organ selling. Unfortunately, neither of these laws appear to be applicable to this issue or to the discussions in the video.

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.”

In the video the representative from Planned Parenthood (PP) makes it clear that the clinics “do not want to be perceived as, ‘This clinic is selling tissue, this clinic is making money off of this.’” Provided that the price set by the clinics is considered “reasonable payment” for the services listed above, the PP affiliates are likely not violating any federal laws.

This law (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 appears to be completely legal under federal law.

On March 22, 1988, the Assistant Secretary for Health of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the Reagan administration imposed a temporary moratorium on federal funding of research involving transplantation of fetal tissue from induced abortions. On November 2, 1989, the HHS secretary extended the moratorium indefinitely. On Jan. 22, 1993 President Bill Clinton lifted the moratorium. The policy has not changed since.

Because of this change, tissue and organs from aborted fetuses may be used for therapeutic purposes provided the material was freely donated by women following their decision to terminate (because of 42 U.S. Code 289g it is illegal for a clinic to ask for approval prior to the abortion).

The organs and tissue may be used provided the woman who had the abortion and is donating the tissue made in writing and signed a declaration that:

“(A) the woman donates the fetal tissue for use in research described in subsection (a);

(B) the donation is made without any restriction regarding the identity of individuals who may be the recipients of transplantations of the tissue…”

The Partial-Birth Abortion Question

The video also raises questions about whether the clinics are using an illegal partial-birth abortion in order to protect the organs for resale. 18 US Code 1531 prohibits partial-birth abortion and states that:

The term “partial-birth abortion” means an abortion in which the person performing the abortion—

(A) deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus;

Because the PP representative says that ultrasound is used so that the abortionist is “cognizant about where you put your graspers” it is unclear on whether she is describing a partial birth abortion or a procedure that is taking place entirely inside the womb. The way she has framed the statement, however, provides her with sufficient plausible deniability. I believe it would be a mistake to place too much weight on such an ambiguous statement.

So what does all this mean? It means that this despicable practice of selling the body parts of aborted children is likely to be legal and an accepted, if not common practice, among abortion providers. The video should serve as a disturbing wake-up call for the pro-life community. We are justified in being outraged by the trafficking in human parts by Planned Parenthood and their justification of the practice and we should be outraged at the federal government that made it legal to traffic in the sale of aborted human flesh. What’s more we should call on our legislators to act to both defund Planned Parenthood and to ban the sale of fetal tissue. 

Editor's Note: 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, Kelly Rosati, Ron Sider and others.