The British Medical Journal reports that “More patients have probably been harmed than helped so far” by the treatment of Parkinson’s disease that involves the transplanting of cells, including cells taken from aborted fetuses.
In an article dated August 11, 1990, Adrian Williams, Professor of Clinical Neurology at the University of Birmingham thinks the treatment is still experimental.
When cells from aborted fetuses (babies) are used, there are technical as well as ethical problems. The cells have to be tested for HIV (the AIDS virus), hepatitis, herpes and cytomegalovirus. This poses technical problems and causes delay. There is still much study to be done and the issue remains as to whether the underlying disease will in the end destroy the transplant graft. There is also the need for ‘immuno-suppressants’ -drugs which overpower the immune response of the body.
Diseases which cause the decay of the nervous system are rapidly becoming one of the most important health issues of our time.
Parkinson’s disease is the most attractive neurological disorder for treatment through the transfer of fetal cells. This is because it is more localized than the more widespread degeneration observed in such neurological disorders as Alzheimer’s disease.
The British Journal of Medicine report agrees with an earlier report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (January 26, 1990) which found that “the results from fetal tissue grafts for Parkinson’s disease and diabetes have not demonstrated significant long-term clinical benefit to patients with these disorders.”
Fetal cells have been regarded as a promising treatment for Parkinson’s disease because they provide a natural chemical known as dopamine.
This chemical is not produced in the brain of a person who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
Dopamine helps stimulate motor activities. When, for reasons that are not understood, 90 per cent or more of the dopamine-producing cells die, the muscles grow stiff. Patients find it difficult to walk and begin to shuffle. In addition, speaking becomes difficult.
After six to eight weeks gestation, a fetus has all its adult dopamine-producing cells – about a half million worth. According to Dr. Curt Freed, a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Centre, fetal-cell implants may reduce some of the disability in Parkinson’s patients. But, he adds, “It is unrealistic to say this will eliminate Parkinson’s disease.”
The controversy associated with the transplanting of fetal cells centres on the degree to which the abortion decision can be separated from the decision to donate the postmortem fetal cells.
Several countries, Canada, Mexico, Sweden and Great Britain among them, believe that the medical procedure and the abortion issue can be separated.
The U.S., however, believes otherwise. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Louis W. Sullivan has stated: “I am persuaded that one must accept the likelihood that permitting the human fetal research at issue will increase the incidence of abortion across the country.”
Some members of the medical community have voiced strong opposition to Sullivan’s stand. Dr. Louis Gerstley III, for example, regards it as a “punitive anti-female, anti-poor, anti-choice attitude.” (American Medical News, May 18, 1990).
The recent reports, however, in the British Medical Journal and JAMA tend to corroborate the position of HHS. Moreover, there is little doubt that fetal-cell transplants will increase the number of abortions. Already the media has reported on the willingness of wives, daughters, and even granddaughters to abort a child specifically conceived for the purpose of having its brain cells harvested and then transplanted for the benefit of a beloved Parkinson’s sufferer.
Dr. John A. Kiernan, professor of anatomy at Western Ontario, refers to this practice of conceiving solely for the purpose of harvesting cells as “the manufactured pregnancy.”