Is Fetal Tissue Essential to Science?

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Planned Parenthood says it donates fetal tissue to scientific research, but only at the consent of patients. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

Videos released by the Center for Medical Progress that accuse Planned Parenthood of selling "baby parts" has spurred members of Congress to launch investigations that may threaten to defund the organization. But this sting operation by the anti-abortion group has also left some questioning whether fetal tissue is essential to scientific research.

Fetal tissue donation has occurred in the U.S. since the 1930s. The tissue itself has been traditionally used in research to develop vaccines and gain understanding of human and cell biology. Human fetal kidney cells, for example, were used to develop the polio vaccine. But Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center's department of population health, says it's less essential to the research field.

"We don't use a lot fetal tissue today, and when it's used it's mainly for studying some fetal disease and fetal development," says Caplan. "It's not a key part or major part of research in the U.S."

In the 1980s, scientists began using fetal tissue to conduct experimental neural cell grafting procedures on patients with advanced Parkinson's disease. This research was met by huge controversy, spurred on by anti-abortion activists. In 1988, the Reagan administration issued a moratorium on this practice. The ban remained in place until the 1993 passage of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act.

This law supported the use of fetal tissue for research and experimental procedures but set guidelines. It required written consent of a donor and informed consent by researchers who planned to use the material to conduct experimental procedures and also permitted federal funding for this research under certain guidelines. The law also makes it clear that researchers using fetal tissue—and companies that procure it—may not be involved in a woman's decision to terminate her pregnancy. It also prevents people in the medical field from altering the medical procedure for the purpose of keeping the tissue intact.

However, Caplan says fetal tissue transplantation wasn't as effective as researchers initially thought and many scientists began to work instead with stem cells from adult humans and embryos. The NIH Revitalization Act also permitted federal funding for research using human embryos resulting from IVF, though Congress later passed additional laws that set up roadblocks banning research in which embryos were destroyed, knowingly discarded or subjected to serious risk; these new policies ostensibly put an end to this area of research for some time. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that supported "scientifically worthy" stem cell research, including the use of embryonic stem cells.

According to the Houston Chronicle, fetal tissue research is a small part of the medical research field, only about $280 million worth of NIH projects since 2011, compared with $581 million used for embryonic cell research.

Caplan believes that ultimately if the concern was about the ethics of fetal tissue donation and not abortion politics, then the Center for Medical Progress would have launched an attack on for-profit brokers that act as middlemen between research institutes that need fetal tissue for studies and Planned Parenthood (or hospitals) that donate the tissue. These brokers sell the product at a huge profit margin, well beyond the cost needed to cover fees to purify, process and store the tissue. There is little oversight for tissue brokers—such as ones the actors in the sting operation were pretending to be in the videos.

One company, StemExpress, issued a statement last week in response to the release of the first video, expressing concern that the attack on Planned Parenthood could be a detriment to the business and the field of scientific research. The company sells fetal liver cells, according to its website.

"Cells produced by the physicians, scientists, medical technicians and nurses at StemExpress are currently used in research globally aimed at finding cures and treatments for cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cardiac disease, and other significant medical conditions. StemExpress prides itself on complying with all laws. Written donor consent is required for any donation, including bone marrow, tissue of all types or blood," the company writes in a statement on its website. "We are hopeful the events of the last few days will not diminish our efforts to support the research community or hinder our partners from continuing their important work."