September 1987 IX/1


The Issue

A new form of "Buck Rogers Research" is well underway. Living cells taken from aborted fetuses are being transplanted into other human beings with serious diseases. People with Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease, for example, have received transplants of brain tissue from recently aborted fetuses. The thought underlying the research is that therapy might be developed for people with these and other debilitating diseases. Fetal tissue is more adaptable for research, and perhaps for therapy, because fetuses do not have a well-developed immune system. Thus the tissue garnered from fetuses, is less likely to be rejected in another person's body and seems to grow faster than tissue taken from other sources. Researchers think that there is enough indication of eventual success to justify continuing the research.

Many scientists have expressed concern about ethical issues involved in this form of research because the raw material for research comes from fetuses which are killed in elective abortions. The best material for research seems to come from fetuses in the second trimester of life. As one scientist stated, "At the embryo stage, you're not just dealing with material, you're dealing with living human beings, emotions, and ethical issues; scientists are scared they won't be able to do the necessary research." Observers of the research scene are even more outspoken; a columnist in The Wall Street Journal, for example, called for international control of trade in fetal tissue to limit unethical procedures. The following observations are offered as a framework for considering some of the ethical issues resulting from research with fetal tissue taken from aborted fetuses.

Ethical Reflections

(1) Clearly, the research in fetal tissue has not caused the legalization of elective abortions. All know that one and one-half million abortions per year were occurring in our country long before research with fetal tissue was initiated. For this reason, a group of lawyers, researchers, and ethicists in 1986 declared support for transplanting tissue taken from aborted fetuses. At the time they stated, "We're fully aware the issue will be clouded by association with abortion, but it is important to stress we are in no way making a comment or taking a stand on the morality or legality of abortion."

However, the foregoing statement does not solve all the ethical problems. While there is no intrinsic connection between research on fetal tissue and elective abortions, those involved in this form of research have an ethical responsibility to make sure that the distance between the two realities is kept clear. There should be no indication that researchers are promoting elective abortion. In order to accomplish this, two steps should be taken: (a) No monies should be paid for fetal tissue. Some researchers and scientists have commented that though they see no difficulty in using the fetal tissue from elective abortions because such abortions are legal. However, they would nor approve of women becoming pregnant with the intention of having an abortion and selling the fetal tissue. But experience attests that men and women in our society will do anything for money. If money can be made by becoming pregnant, then we can be assured that such a commerce will be developed. There are federal laws against the sale of organs for transplantation. It seems there should be federal laws prohibiting the sale of fetal tissue for research as well. (b) A second manner of disassociating with the destruction of living human beings is to foster the availability of fetal tissue derived from culture processes. The ethical issue resulting from the source of supply for fetal tissue might be solved if the source-material for the culture is derived from spontaneous as opposed to elective abortions.

(2) Though scientists are aware of the ethical issues resulting from research with fetal tissue, some consider that it is not their responsibility to grapple with these issues personally. Rather, they look to the federal government or some other agency to handle the ethical and legal issues while they continue their research. Making ethical decisions about one's work or profession is a personal responsibility. This responsibility cannot be transferred to a group of lawyers or ethicists. History demonstrates sad results when scientists renounce their personal responsibility of determining the ethical implications of their work.

(3) Some ethicists and scientists compare fetal research to organ transplants from cadavers. Thus they maintain that the use of aborted fetuses is acceptable if the mother gives consent. But further consideration belies this assumption. When a family surrenders through proxy consent organs from a cadaver for heart or liver transplant, they have not been involved in causing the death of the person in question. Hence, though there is no direct connection between researchers and abortion, let there be no confusion that informed consent solves the ethical issues resulting from the use of tissue from aborted fetuses.

(4) Some will object to the description of elective abortion as killing a human being. One ethicist said, "Please, call it removing fetal tissue." However, it is extremely important to be clear and honest about actions under ethical analysis. This is especially true when human beings are involved. Once a group of people is deprived of their humanity, then all forms of oppression may be justified. For example, reflect upon what happened to some human beings in World War II because they were designated as "non-Aryans;" think of the atrocities justified in Vietnam because Americans were fighting "Gooks;" or think about the lies and destruction of life in Central America justified because the people are identified as "Communists." If we are to reach valid ethical solutions in health care and research, we must be accurate in defining the issues. The fetal tissue in this form of research comes from fetuses well along in development. While all would not designate them as persons to be protected fully by the law, maintaining that fetuses are anything other than living beings and of the human species is scientifically untenable. People may differ as to whether there is any good which justifies ending a human life in its early stages of development. But, in view of the scientific evidence, one has a difficult time maintaining that a fetus is anything other than a human being.


Research therapy with human tissue has a promising future. But when assessing the ethical reasons in research and therapy, scientists must be concerned with more than the results. The act which produces the results must be evaluated ethically, as well as the implications which follow from the action and its effects.

Kevin O"Rourke, OP

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.