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Wanted: intact brains from 24-to-28-week fetuses, "to dissect w/ summer camp students." This is not a horror movie plot, but evidence released by the House Select Investigative Panel from its inquiry into the connection between fetal tissue researchers and abortion providers.
In mid-2015, undercover journalist David Daleiden began releasing videos revealing that Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics worked closely with fetal tissue procurement organizations to provide organs and tissues on demand for research. Mainstream and social media pointedly ignored the news, only awakening briefly from their self-imposed slumber to announce Daleiden's indictment in a flurry of headlines, and then relapsing into their news blackout. When all charges were subsequently dropped, the media dismissed its relevance.
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Meanwhile, the House investigation has piled up hundreds of pages of evidence documenting the unethical aspects of the too-cozy relationship between abortion providers and fetal tissue exploiters. In its June 23 announcement, the panel released nearly 300 pages of documents.1 One document is "Procurement Notes," an 80-page lab notebook with a marbled cover. Here is a sampling of its handwritten entries:
21.5 weeks—DIG [digoxin, used to cause fetal death prior to abortion] very, very red tissue
tiny bits of brain tissue everywhere.
Twins—1 w/ clubbed feet
One entire retina!
2 eyes, 2 hearts, lung, brain
20 week twins
Intact brains to [redacted] Camp
Intact brain obtained and placed in 10% FA for [redacted] Camp2
Reading the notebook is not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach. It reveals the impersonal, detached nature of the transactions. The researcher did note excitement when a brain culture grew, or an organ was retrieved intact.
I gave testimony before the Select Investigative Panel on March 2, 2016, arguing three main points: (1) Respect the fetus as a human being entitled to the protections of modern guidelines for medical research. (2) Those who participate in elective abortion, including the mother, are morally disqualified from providing consent for use of the fetus's body, organs, or tissue. (3) There are better, more ethical options.3
Respect the Fetus
The core question is, who or what is the human fetus? ("Fetus" is a technical term for the unborn offspring of a mammal, also defined as "developing young.") The biological facts are clear: the fetus is an organism that is in charge of its own integral functioning and that endures and develops over time. The fetus is not a potential human being, but an actual human being.
As a human being, the fetus should be protected by the regulations governing research on human subjects. After all, greater restrictions are imposed on research involving pregnant women and (wanted) fetuses, as well as on research involving prisoners—reflecting an overall trend toward increasing protections, not eliminating them for one class of human beings. Yet, distressingly, in the case of abortion, the fetus is treated as nothing more than a useful biomedical resource.
Human Dignity & Moral Standing
Those who are responsible for the death of the "developing young," including the mother, the doctor, and any others with influence over the abortion decision, have failed to recognize the fundamental principle of human dignity. Morally, therefore, they have forfeited their right to dispose of the remains of that tiny body.
It is even more egregious to permit others to profit from the original wrongful act of aborting these tiny human beings. Regulations on research using fetal tissue prohibit (1) offering payment beyond costs, and (2) changing the abortion procedure or timing to facilitate retrieval of particular organs or tissue.
Evidence obtained by the House panel suggests that federal law is being violated in just these areas. The more specimens a lab tech successfully retrieves, the more that tech is paid per specimen. Harvesting 1–10 specimens brings a $35-per-tissue bonus, while providing 41–50 specimens ratchets the payment up to $75 per tissue. Volume pays.
Clinics receive additional payments, even though they incur no costs.4 (The mother bears the cost of the abortion, and the procurement company covers the rest.) One company brochure offered an "easy to implement program + financial profits" for any clinic harvesting "raw materials," including fetal tissue.5
The entanglement between the abortion clinic, procurement organization, and researchers fosters a detached, consumerist view of the fetus as a biological factory supplying profitable products like testes, eyes, liver, sternum, scalp, and other organs. It's as though the fetus were the fulfillment center for a mail-order catalog.6
A key aspect of respect for persons in biomedical research is informed consent. Some of the so-called consent forms obtained by the House committee would not pass even the most negligent review by an institutional review board (IRB). One form claims that maternal blood and fetal tissue have been "used to treat and find a cure for such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and AIDS."7 Really?
A woman may be solicited based on the gestational age of her baby, information that is disclosed because the clinic shares her medical records with the lab tech, in violation of HIPAA protections. Is she told of the specific body parts that are desired? The child's brain, eyes, thymus, or liver might be requested. And the intended use? While they haven't cured cancer, fetal kidneys have certainly been put in rats.8 Really.
There is no effective institutional oversight, because the vast majority of abortions take place in clinics that escape the requirements that hospitals and other ambulatory surgical centers are subject to. Not surprisingly, abortion clinic owners vigorously resist meeting those health standards.
The history of the use of human bodies and parts in medical education and research reveals a disturbing pattern of first seeking access from the most disadvantaged, the poor, minority ethnic groups, prisoners, and the abandoned. And who is more vulnerable than the child in the womb slated for surgical death?
Some have argued that we all have a moral obligation to contribute our bodies for the good of society. By extension, they claim, the fetus, if asked, would want to help. Kathleen Nolan notes the irony: "Fetuses that have been excluded from membership in the human community by a societally sanctioned maternal decision to abort now have obligations to that same community."9
Fetal tissue research is unnecessary. Despite decades of effort, results have been meager. Meanwhile, ethically derived alternatives thrive. Over 3,330 approved clinical trials, some completed and some still ongoing, now annually benefit more than 70,000 patients worldwide.
A just society has no moral or otherwise valid claim on electively aborted fetal bodies, organs, or tissues. In fact, we have a moral responsibility to protest not only this kind of research, but also the underlying abortions. Dismemberment of fetal bodies should be mourned. Instead, their brains are sold as the next cool thing to dissect at summer camp. •
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