Bioethics @ TIU

Fetal tissue and commerce

Posted August 24th, 2017 by Jon Holmlund

You may have seen in the general press that Indiana University is asking a federal judge to declare unconstitutional that state’s law banning research on the remains of aborted fetuses.  I noticed an article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).  An open-access account can be found here.

I oppose abortion, but I can imagine for the sake of argument that, if one allows for abortion, that it might be claimed that the tissue of an aborted unborn human could ethically be donated for research.  It seems to me that such an argument would construe this donation to be similar to donation of organs for transplantation.  In this case, the mother would be speaking for her (newly-deceased) unborn to make the decision, since the aborted one would not have decision-making capacity.

For such an action to be remotely ethical, donation of tissue could not in any way influence the decision to have an abortion–as, indeed, federal restrictions on fetal tissue research currently require.  There should be no profit to the donor or the abortion provider in the process.  In light of the Planned Parenthood brouhaha over this subject, I might suggest that the researchers seeking the tissue for research be required to bear any costs for the preparation of the tissue.  And something like the dead donor rule for organ transplantation would have to apply.  But that’s probably a trivial point in this case.  Never mind that the dead donor rule itself is under attack these days.

I imagine it’s clear that I don’t find this argument very persuasive.  For one, in organ donation, assuming the dead donor rule applies, one is not killing the donor on purpose, as is the case in abortion.  (Then again, maybe I speak too soon.  Maybe as euthanasia advances we will see it practiced explicitly to facilitate organ harvesting.  But I don’t want to believe that will get much traction.)

For another, scientists should seek alternate approaches to their research.  If we afforded unborn humans the same protections generally afforded to human research subjects, seeking such alternatives would be unescapable.  But in a time when it is far from agreed that we should not create human embryos solely for the purpose of medical research, extending protections to cover the new being in a pregnancy would appear a stretch for us.

Whatever the law allows, it is hard to square respect for human life with performing research on electively aborted babies, no matter how “important” the research appears.

The WSJ report says that other parts of Indiana’s law have been blocked in court, including a ban on abortions because prenatal diagnosis has detected Down syndrome–part of my subject last week.

Two other points about this case that I find painfully telling about how our society reflexively thinks of human life.  First: Indiana University’s key argument against the Indiana law is that it blocks commerce, it violates the commerce clause of the Constitution.  The argument is that aborted fetal tissue is an “article of commerce,” similar to–and these are the precedents being cited– margarine, or meat slaughtered more than 100 miles from the point of sale.

Second:  the university contends that the law does not advance a legitimate public interest.  All it does is express “moral disdain for abortion.”  So: the protection of unborn human life is not a legitimate public interest.  What other human life lies outside the public interest, I wonder?



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