Last December 13, the first fetal tissue transplant in Canada for Parkinson’s Disease took place at the Victoria General Hospital (VGH) in Halifax.
Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder characterized by loss of motor functions and coordination; it affects about 70,000 people in Canada, most of them over age 50. The transplant of fetal tissue from an aborted child into an adult brain was performed on a 61-year-old woman who had suffered from the disease for twenty years.
Dr. Bernard Badley, President and Chief Executive Officer of Victoria General, held a press conference to announce the transplant. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald, which treated the announcement as front-page news, quoted Dr. Badley as saying, “I’m pleased to tell you that the patient is doing well.” However, the doctors stated that it would be six months before the woman showed any improvement and that she would not be “completely normal.”
Dr. Badley was also reported as saying that the first transplant was a clinical trial: “The hospital only has permission to carry it out on five patients. Then a decision will be made on whether the program will be extended further.”
During an operation lasting about two and a half hours, VGH surgeons injected neural cells from an aborted fetus into an area of the patient’s brain which had failed to produce the chemical dopamine.
This chemical is essential for the transmission of signals within the brain which control motor functions.
In a press release issued on behalf of Campaign Life Coalition/Nova Scotia on December 17, Dr. William Deagle, an Enfield, N.S. family physician, stated that experiments using fetal tissue to combat Parkinson’s Disease show the need for immediate regulation in this field. The reactions of the pro-life movement to these experiments, he said, “are based not only on the fact that they violate the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki, having no therapeutic value for the individual (the child), but also because such experiments are inescapably linked with elective abortion.”
Collaboration with abortionists
For successful results, he explained, the medical scientist must obtain fetal tissue through close collaboration with the abortionist. Fetuses must be tissue-typed to prevent rejection.
Therefore, Dr. Deagle added, “fetuses grown for transplantation must have the right genetic tissue type and be grown to a specific stage of developments, as results with Parkinson’s Disease have only shown improvement at eight to ten weeks of gestation. Commercial marketing of fetal parts for remuneration for mothers with tissue-typed donor direction is at our doorstep.” Dr. Badley, however, said that numerous committees had studied the subject and that they had consulted legal, ethical, and scientific experts. He maintained that the procedure was morally correct: “The two issues are clearly separable: the act of abortion is one issue; the decision as to what happens to the tissue obtained is a totally separate issue. It is purposely confused, I think, in order to make a point.”
Dr. Deagle does not agree: “There is no separation of fetal tissue research and abortion. The natural results from further research in this area will develop contractual pregnancy, procuring fetal tissue; this will not only kill the unborn but abuse women for commercial enterprise to treat a myriad of medical degenerative illnesses.”
“The true evil of abortion,” he added, “is made much clearer by the twin evil of fetal tissue research using fetal parts from induced abortion.”
Media backs hospital
An editorial in the Chronicle-Herald for December 18, 1991, sided with the VGH doctors, and quoted Dr. Bernard M. Dickens of the University of Toronto, a long-time defender of abortions, as saying that the possibility of fetuses being aborted for transplant purposes “is a product more of ethical worst-case speculation than of experience.”
The Herald held that Dr. Badley was right “to separate emotional arguments over the morality of abortion from the procedure. He has argued that the organs of murder victims are frequently transplanted for use by other patients. That does not mean that physicians condone murder…A point well remembered during what is sure to be an emotion-filled debate to come.”
Facts, not emotion
But in an article entitled “Troubling thoughts about a fetal ‘harvest’” (Globe and Mail, February 11, 1992), Toronto neurologists, Drs. Paul O’Connor and Paul Ranalli pointed out some of the logical consequences of the fetal transplants, consequences which the VGH doctors probably would not like to contemplate.
The thought that the fetus is “just a blob of tissue” must provide some comfort to women who have abortions and physicians who perform them.
Most abortions are performed late in the first trimester, from eight to twelve weeks of gestation. This is also the exact stage, Drs. O’Connor and Ranalli point out, at which the brains from aborted fetuses are “harvested” for transplantation.
What is the implication?
Far fro being “a blob,” the first-trimester fetus not only has a brain but has already developed a high level of specialization:
“The substantia nigra, the small area deep in the brain that contains the dopamine-producing cells that have degenerated in Parkinson’s patients, is present and actively working inside the brain of the eight-week-old fetus. This region does not just represent the rudimentary primary motor system, but rather is part of the accessory motor network that smoothes and tailors an individual’s voluntary movement. In other words, it is one of the more sophisticated elements of the brain’s structure.”
One simply cannot have it both ways, these two doctors say.
The first-trimester fetus cannot be simultaneously a blob and a human being with a specialized brain structure suitable for transplant. And, after eight weeks the brain simply becomes more mature, more developed, more specialized. If brain function is the most important criterion of personhood, then the young human fetus must be a person.
Therefore the doctors conclude that Canadians must face the awful truth about abortion.
As worthy as the new transplant operation might seem at first glance, we should reflect on what we know about the humanity of the fetus. Since human fetal tissue is required for transplants, then the fetus is a human being. If it is, it should be protected as such, instead of “harvested.”
Joe McDonald is The Interim’s correspondent in Nova Scotia.