Time magazine for April 3, 1989, carried an account of a historic fetal-cell transplant which may have saved a boy’s life. Soon after their first child died of a rare form of immune deficiency, a French couple learned that their second baby, due in August, 1988, was suffering from the same condition. Without publicity, two doctors in Lyons transplanted cells from two aborted babies into the 30-week-old preborn. After he was born, blood cells indicated that the transplanted cells had multiplied, so that his immune system may become normal.
As Time noted, the use of aborted fetuses for medical purposes is highly controversial; right-to-life advocates strongly object to it. To the parents of this child, the issue seemed clear-cut: without the cells of aborted babies, their own child would have had virtually no chance of survival.
In March 1988 a moratorium on fetal tissue transplants was ordered in the United States by then Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Windom. At the end of April in this year, the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine published arguments from two teams of ethicists contending that the ban should be lifted. One group declared that it would be ethically preferable to use tissue from spontaneously aborted babies, but the other argues that such miscarriages usually occur because of genetic defects or infection, both of which make the tissue dangerous to transplant. Scientists regard human fetal tissue as very desirable because it grows rapidly, is very adaptable, and is not ordinarily rejected by the recipient.
Fetal brain transplants have been tried in humans as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, with controversial results. Similar logic would underlie the use of fetal pancreas cells for diabetics. Fetal transplants are also being considered for other degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The therapeutic use of fetal tissue proved the most volatile issue at a clinical practice conference held at the University of Minnesota, The Wanderer of April 10 reported. Dr. Dennis Turner of the University’s Department of Neurosurgery defended it vigorously. We are “forced to use fetal tissue in some respects,” he said, and he even maintained that it represents a new frontier for the treatment of a number of inherited and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. The cells “are able to survive and integrate significantly better into the damaged nervous system of an adult than any other adult nervous tissue.”
In response, distinguished English philosopher Dr. Elizabeth Anscombe said that using fetal tissue is nothing but “using bits of aborted babies.” The question of doing so “arises because the aborted babies are there” – because in both England and the U.S. abortion is taken for granted. The Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Hymie Gordon also expressed his sense of horror at the issue of harvesting fetal tissue. The Auschwitz syndrome came to his mind during the previous presentations, he said. “Harvesting hair and teeth was quite an industry. Can’t we find some other way of dealing with Parkinson’s Disease?” he asked.
In July the British government approved research involving fetal tissue from induced abortions; it decided that a clear distinction could be made between the abortion issue and the separate issue of how fetal tissue should be used. But on October 17 it was announced that Dr. James Mason, assistant secretary for health in the Bush administration, had recommended that the U.S. continue to ban government-financed medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. American pro-life groups continue to argue that such research would create a demand for the tissue and therefore encourage women to have abortions.