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 / Aug 18

Growing up, I was often surprised that other people did not have as many grandparents as I did. While everyone I knew had four, I had more than double that at nine total. This is because my father and birth mother divorced, and they were themselves the products of blended homes. So to talk about my family tree, I would end up confusing people because I would switch from speaking about my “mother” to my “birth mother” (leading some to think I was adopted). I didn’t know any different, and that was just how my family tree looked. I’m sure it is the same for many people.

What is IVG?

This is a reality that will become even more common in the coming years, but not because of a rise in divorce rates. It’s because of new technology that makes it possible for a child to have two, three, four, or any number of parents. This technology, in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), goes beyond merely assisting couples in reproduction and actually circumvents the very biological processes necessary for fertilization. Thus, while certain artificial reproductive technologies (ARTs) can, in some ways, reinforce the biological reality of sexual complementarity and childbearing, IVG necessarily opens up the floodgates for a complete reinterpretation of sex, family structures, and parenting. 

Before looking at IVG, I should state clearly that most ARTs arise out of a deep desire for children that is godly and honorable. Also, in many cases, individuals turn to these technologies because of the reality that they have been unable to conceive by natural methods or because of a series of miscarriages. This is something that my wife and I discussed at length prior to our marriage because of a series of health concerns which she feared would prevent her from conceiving. Thinking about this topic is different than speaking to someone who is struggling with the thought that they are unable to do the very thing that they desire most in this world. The longing for children is a good and holy desire. It is one of the most devastating effects of sin on our bodies that it is not always possible to fulfill that desire. 

Additionally, there is an entire generation of young men and women who were conceived through IVF. So this is not just a discussion of theoretical concepts, but of the very lives of people that we know, whether that is the child down the street, a friend, or a family member. These are not partial people who possess only a half-dignity because of the manner in which they were conceived. They are full image-bearers. Any discussion of ARTs should bear in mind that this has direct practical application on people’s lives. 

With those caveats about ARTs generally, I would argue that IVG is a different kind of technology and thus is a unique threat to family structure and stability. 

In vitro gametogensis is the process of creating gametes (sex cells) from other human cells, usually stem cells. The process of sex cell creation occurs in the reproductive organs of men and women, with either a sperm cell or egg produced. However, IVG allows individuals to take any cell from any portion of the body—skin, muscle, organ—and through a series of processes create a gamete. Thus, a single individual—or two men, or two women, or four individuals—could have both a sperm and egg produced which could then be fertilized. The possibilities are literally endless for the ways in which this technology could be employed to create children. Thus, my conundrum about the number of grandparents could be easily multiplied so that a future child has three or four biological parents. 

IVG’s threat to the family

This technology represents a unique threat to the family structure because it destroys the very complementarity of sexuality in a way that no other ART has done. Andrew T. Walker and Matthew Anderson do an excellent job of laying out the ethical concerns of other ARTs in their article on IVF, but these technologies at least recognize the complementarity of the sexes and seek to artificially reproduce it. IVF takes the normal combination of the sex cells of men and women and combines them outside the uterus before implanting them. But implicit in this action is the creational reality that it takes a man and woman to produce a child, so even when employed by same-sex couples, there is a need for an outside donor or surrogate to carry the child. 

However, this is not the case with IVG. It is not two individuals who are participating in the conception of a child, but one or any number of people. Thus, the very structure of heterosexual reproduction, and by extension the definition of the family, is threatened by this new technology. Debora Sparr admits as much in her article on IVG by saying that this method could “dismantle completely the reproductive structures of heterosexuality.” On one level, it is impossible to do this because even the combined cells must be transformed into male and female sex cells. But practically, the truth of a man and woman coming together in the sexual union is totally destroyed. 

Again, I want to affirm that the desire for children is good and holy. But, like all such desires, God has created a structure for the proper fulfillment of that desire. IVG not only circumvents but entirely subverts the creational ordinance for men and women to come together and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Though this technology is possible only in mice at the moment, history has shown that humanity has a tendency to surge forward without thinking about the ethical considerations, leading to situations such as one donor who had fathered over 200 children. 

Christians should be the first to urge the surrounding culture to understand that just because something is scientifically possible does not make it good. Just because we can create life does not mean that we are capable of assuming such godlike power with any true measure. And that does not even begin to get at the scientific problems that could arise from meddling with genetics in this way. 

As I recounted in my story, divorce, another threat to family stability, caused me to be confused about my grandparents. And this technology opens the door for even more confusion. Christians should reject this ART, not out of a fear of the future or a luddite rejection of technological innovation, but because it threatens family structure and subverts God’s design and ordering of the cosmos.