I’ve heard a few prolife thinkers take the position that it is wrong to use the biological tissue of aborted fetuses for medicinal purposes on the grounds that such a practice would encourage additional abortions.  I’m not sure I agree with this line of reasoning, however.  Consider the practice of using the organs of those killed by homicide.  Should we be opposed to this on the grounds that it will encourage additional homicides?  Surely not.  The motivation for homicide is not to provide a fresh supply of organs for the born, but hatred for the individual who was murdered.  Nobody commits murder so that they can increase the number of organs available for transplantation; therefore, there is no reason to believe that using the organs of homicide victims will increase the number of homicides in the future.  By the same token, the motivation for abortion is not to provide additional biological tissue to help the born, but because people do not want the children they conceived.  While an unborn child should never be killed, if and when an unborn child has been killed, I see no ethical problem in using its tissues to aid the born.  After all, one is not doing evil (abortion) to accomplish some good (helping the sick), but trying to find some good (helping the sick) from an evil (abortion) they cannot prevent.

At least, these were my thoughts prior to reading more deeply into some of the arguments presented by those who oppose the use of aborted fetal tissues.  After having delved a bit more into the arguments, I’ve changed my thinking.  It think it is more reasonable to avoid the medical use of aborted fetal tissues.

Richard Doerflinger makes a couple of good arguments.[1]  First, using the remains of aborted fetuses for medical research will make it more difficult to condemn the evil of abortion, and I would add, ultimately hinder our efforts to end abortion.[2]  One of the arguments made in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1989) on behalf of abortion was that women have come to depend on abortion for equality in the workforce.  If abortion were outlawed, it would decrease the quality of life for millions of women.  Surely an even stronger argument could be made for the use of aborted fetuses for medical research.  Millions of people’s lives could be adversely affected if there is not enough fetal tissue for use in the medical field.  Since aborted fetuses provide the vast majority of the resources needed, ending abortion would mean the increased suffering, and perhaps even death, of millions of people.  In a pragmatic society such as ours, this is a compelling reason to continue the practice of abortion.  It would be much easier to end abortion if no one benefits directly or indirectly from abortion.  Indeed, Scott Rae argues that the medical use of tissues from aborted fetuses could even increase the number of abortions, even if only marginally:

At a minimum, donating tissue would offer relief from some of the guilt that many women feel when electing abortion, thus alleviating some of the ambivalence that usually accompanies it. Though our society tragically permits abortion, most do not view abortion itself as good. Even the most vocal pro-choice advocates acknowledge that it is the right to choose that is good, not the act of terminating a pregnancy itself. The prospect of donating tissue is not likely to dramatically increase abortions unless the pregnant mother is allowed to designate who receives the tissue. But it would certainly contribute to the decision to abort and might push some women “over the line.” The routine retrieval of the tissue would no doubt make the unborn’s death seem less tragic. … The possibility of “redeeming abortion” throws a powerful human motivation into the already complex situation that will affect those one-third to 40 percent who change their minds during the process.[3]

Secondly, doing so would be “a morally unacceptable collaboration with the abortion industry.”  Doctors who need the fetal tissues must work directly with abortion providers.  They must coordinate with abortion providers regarding the timing of the abortion, and in some cases, even the procedure used to perform the abortion.  Scott Rae writes, “For the best medical results there would need to be an institutional, symbiotic relationship with the abortion industry, thereby making the separation of abortion and tissue procurement very difficult. This partnership will also make it more complicated to isolate the timing and method of abortion from what is necessary to procure the best possible tissue.”[4]  When obtaining fetal tissues requires this much collaboration, it becomes difficult to see how one is not complicit in abortion itself.  It would be similar to American doctors working with Joseph Mengele during World War II, arranging for the use of the tissues of the Jews he was killing in his medical experiments. LeRoy Walters once compared it to working with “an organized homicide system”:

Ought one to make experimental use of the products of an abortion system, when one would object on ethical grounds to many or most of the abortions performed within that system? If a particular hospital became the beneficiary of an organized homicide system which provided a fresh supply of cadavers, one would be justified in raising questions about the moral appropriateness of the hospital’s continuing cooperation with the suppliers.[5]

Germain Grisez argues that allowing the use of aborted fetal tissues for medical purposes has the unintended effect of making abortionists – and I would include the mother as well – feel justified in the abortion since their decisions and their actions are indirectly involved in advancing medical research, and helping other people who are suffering:

By enabling abortionists to feel that they are contributing to science, it would provide them with an excuse of a kind especially important in a university hospital where there might otherwise be some repugnance to doing many abortions. The research project also probably would be used to reassure women seeking abortion that terminating their pregnancies is not so bad, inasmuch as it would benefit other babies.[6]

Finally, Christopher Kaczor makes an interesting argument regarding the problem of consent.[7]  Human dignity requires that consent be given before using one’s body.  The living can consent to have their bodies used for medical purposes prior to their death, and in the case of homicide victims, the law recognizes the right of the kin to provide such consent.  But what about the unborn?  Obviously, in the case of an aborted fetus, it cannot consent to having its body donated for medical use.  The parent must consent to such.  But does a parent who is aborting their child have the right to provide such consent?  Kaczor argues that parental rights over one’s child exist because of one’s parental duty to one’s child to look after its well-being until it can do so on its own.  Thus, a parent’s authority over their child is limited to those things that provide for the child’s good.  When a parent seeks to do evil to their child, they lose their proper parental authority.  In such cases, the child is obligated to disobey his or her parent, and the State reserves the right to remove the child from the parent’s authority and place him or her under their own authority.  Since abortion involves the worst kind of moral evil a parent can inflict on their child – the taking of their life without proper justification – the parent who decides to abort her child loses her moral right to authority over that child.  As such, the mother does not have the authority to consent to use her child’s remains to the medical industry for use; neither should those who were complicit in the abortion.  Given the evil nature of abortion, valid consent is impossible.

Despite all of the reasons one should not use the tissues of aborted fetuses for medical purposes, the fact remains that it is happening.  Doerflinger offers sound moral guidelines for the medical use of aborted fetal tissues: “Vital organs may not be removed until after the death of the donor is certain beyond a reasonable doubt; they should not be subjected to commercial trafficking; there must be no complicity with those who have unjustly caused the death of the donor; and moral scandal must be avoided.”[8]  I would add to these the guidelines offered by the National Institutes of Health in 1988, as summarized by Scott Rae:

  • “The decision to abort must be made prior to discussion of the use of the tissue.
  • Anonymity is to be maintained between donor and recipient.” (which includes a prohibition of the donor specifying a particular recipient as beneficiary of the fetal tissue)
  • “Timing and method of abortion is not to be influenced by the possibility of tissue use.
  • Consent of the pregnant woman is necessary and sufficient unless the husband objects.
  • No financial or other incentives are to be given to the woman who aborts and thus ‘donates’ the tissue.”[9]

Hopefully, in the future we will not only stop the medical use of aborted fetal tissue, but stop the very evil that makes it all possible: abortion.


[1]Richard Doerflinger, “Meeting of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel” at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on September 14, 1988; available from http://www.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Articles%20Aug11/Art_Aug11_21.html; Internet; accessed 10 December 2013.
[2]Richard Doerflinger, “Meeting of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel” at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on September 14, 1988; available from http://www.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Articles%20Aug11/Art_Aug11_21.html; Internet; accessed 10 December 2013.
[3]Scott B. Rae, “The Ethics of Fetal Tissue Transplantation”; available from http://www.equip.org/articles/the-ethics-of-fetal-tissue-transplantation/#christian-books-2; Internet; accessed 16 December 2013. Consultants to the Advisory Committee to the Director, National Institutes of Health, RHFTTRP, (December 1988): Vol. 2, A25.
[4]Scott B. Rae, “The Ethics of Fetal Tissue Transplantation”; available from http://www.equip.org/articles/the-ethics-of-fetal-tissue-transplantation/#christian-books-2; Internet; accessed 16 December 2013. Consultants to the Advisory Committee to the Director, National Institutes of Health, RHFTTRP, (December 1988): Vol. 2, A25.
[5]LeRoy Walters, “Ethical Issues in Experimentation on the Human Fetus,” Journal of Religious Ethics 2 (Spring 1974): 41, 48. Quoted in Scott B. Rae, “The Ethics of Fetal Tissue Transplantation”; available from http://www.equip.org/articles/the-ethics-of-fetal-tissue-transplantation/#christian-books-2; Internet; accessed 16 December 2013.
[6]Germain Grisez,Question 85: May a researcher use tissue from deliberately aborted fetuses?”; available from http://www.twotlj.org/G-3-85.html; Internet; accessed 10 December 2013.

[7]Christopher Kaczor, “Fetal Research and Consent”; available from http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/kac/kac_11fetalresearch.html; Internet; accessed 16 December 2013. Scott Rae makes a similar argument, as do others.

[8]Richard Doerflinger, “Meeting of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel” at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on September 14, 1988; available from http://www.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Articles%20Aug11/Art_Aug11_21.html; Internet; accessed 10 December 2013.

[9]Scott B. Rae, “The Ethics of Fetal Tissue Transplantation”; available from http://www.equip.org/articles/the-ethics-of-fetal-tissue-transplantation/#christian-books-2; Internet; accessed 16 December 2013. Consultants to the Advisory Committee to the Director, National Institutes of Health, RHFTTRP, (December 1988): Vol. 2, A25.

Advertisements