Opinion

Fetal tissue plays key role in research

It has been nearly four months since videos surfaced showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing their role in making the organs of aborted fetuses available for medical research. Despite claims by the antiabortion activists who produced the highly edited videos, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.

Nonetheless, the potentially damaging fallout continues, with states moving to yank funding from the women’s health organization and creation of a special committee by House Republicans who want to defund the group. Particularly worrisome is the interest of some states in limiting the use of fetal tissue for medical research.

Research use of fetal tissue, which is legal, became an issue because of explosive but baseless allegations that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue for profit. The fact is that a small number of the organization’s health centers facilitate tissue donations from patients who request it, and the only money involved was for reasonable reimbursement of costs. Planned Parenthood recently announced it would forgo even those token payments to remove any doubt about its practices.

The uproar has nonetheless caused some of the organization’s affiliates to rethink their participation in the research, and there are efforts in some states to ban or restrict use of fetal tissue for medical studies. Those are troubling developments given the valuable role, dating to the 1930s, that fetal tissue research plays in advancing scientific understanding and developing treatments for a wide range of conditions.

“Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue,” R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. Research using fetal tissue helped in the discovery of a polio vaccine, and today it is a critical resource in studies of retinal degeneration, pregnancy loss, fetal health and human development disorders such as Down syndrome, according to the National Institutes of Health, which funds about $76 million in fetal tissue research annually.

The importance of this research was recognized by Congress in 1993 when, with bipartisan majorities in both houses, it passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act that formalized then-President Bill Clinton’s lifting of a moratorium on federal funding for fetal tissue transplantation research imposed by the previous administration. There are strict guidelines, including a requirement that a woman give written consent, and only after she has decided to have an abortion.

Much of the opposition to fetal tissue research is rooted in objections to abortion. But even some who support a legal right to abortion were discomfited by the casual, even callous, way Planned Parenthood officials in the videos referred to the organs of aborted fetuses. Interestingly, though, as a result of publicity about the videos, Planned Parenthood officials say there has been an increase in the number of abortion patients wanting to donate tissue. These women know better than anyone that their abortions would have happened no matter where the fetal tissue ended up, and they want it put to use saving lives rather than consign it to the trash.

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