In January this year Swedish researchers announced that they had the first clear evidence that fetal brain tissue can help people with Parkinson’s disease. In a study published in the U.S. journal Science, doctors at University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, reported dramatic improvements in a 49-year-old man which began a few months after material from fetuses was transplanted into his brain.
Dr. Olle Lindvall, a neurologist at the hospital said that his team first performed fetal transplants on two people in 1987, but they saw only small improvement. Through minor changes in the transplant procedure, they got much better results this time, and they claimed that their work produced the first evidence that fetal brain cells can survive in the human brain.
Jake Epp says no
Research teams in a number of other countries are working on the same procedure. A total ban on federal funding for fetal transplants has been imposed in the U.S.
In Canada, in 1988, Health Minister Jake Epp also stated that no federal money would go to medical research using aborted fetal tissue while he was in office. This was in reply to a Dalhousie University team in Halifax, headed by Dr. Alan Fine, who had been seeking approval for such experiments.
Dr. Fine was convinced that the techniques used by his researchers would produce better and more clearly definitive results than had been secured elsewhere.
Predictably, the announcement produced strong reactions. Dave Shannon, a third-year law student and president of the Dalhousie Student Union, argued that the federal government should pass a law allowing doctors to graft brain tissue from aborted fetuses onto adults with neurological disorders.
He evidently felt that he might he might some day benefit from a transplant himself; a rugby accident eight years ago has him confined to a wheelchair, and eventually transplanted tissue might be found beneficial for spinal cord injuries.
Dr. Fine’s contempt for pro-life
Ann Marie Tomlins of the Council for Life of Nova Scotia, contended that you cannot use evil to do good and that the tissue is obtained from deliberate killing.
Dr. Alan Fine, however, has made up his mind. Objections to fetal transplants, he says contemptuously, “are not medical or scientific or ethical. Effectively, the objections are purely political namely a vocal anti-abortion lobby that sees this as an effective focus of their campaign.” “It is absolutely maddening,” he told the Globe and Mail February 2, “watching patients deteriorate beyond the stage where treatment can help them. This is not a joke; it is a tragedy.”
Others have joined in attacking those who oppose fetal transplants. By describing hard or desperate cases defenders of the procedure portray those opposing it as ogres.
Thus, in the Toronto Star of February 13, columnist Frank Jones took the side of Parkinson’s sufferers, such as one whom he named Don Bill. Brill, now 58, and a father of five, described being a victim of the disease as like living your life in your own coffin. There are 70,000 other Canadians with the disease and they feel intense frustration over the fact that a possibly beneficial operation is being withheld from them, Jones argued.
Basically it is no different from an organ transplant, he said, except for one thing: only fetal tissue works because it has not developed immune responses. “I wonder,” he said in conclusion, “If those opposing the research will feel differently if some day they find themselves living in their own coffins.”
Political but not ethical?
Jones also described the opposition as political. But in his own column he showed how absurd this description really is. He contacted Abby-Ann Lynch, director of the Westminister Institute for Ethics in London, who pointed out a number of possible objections, none of them political at all.
First is the question of whether the treatment works – over the long-term instead of just the short. Second, Dr. Lynch is concerned about violating life; she points out that the fetus is a member of the human race. Third, she asks whether experimentation will lead to the deliberate impregnation of women to produce fetuses for research. Fourth, she raises the question of consent. The fetus cannot give it, and how can a mother be qualified to give consent when she has already agreed to destroy her unborn child?
Don Brill finds these arguments specious and Frank Jones agrees with him: “Doesn’t pro-life also involve having sympathetic concern for people with Parkinson’s?” he asks.
Pressure in England
In England, fetal transplants are being pushed. A storm of controversy arose in 1989 over the report of a committee headed by the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne to review the use of fetal tissue and organs for transplants. The committee backed the use of fetal brain tissue for research, and the government quickly circulated the report before Parliament had a chance to look at it.
Pro-life groups pointed out the some of the language of the report indicated permission for fetal experimentation on babies which were clearly still alive. Given the axiom ‘the fresher the tissue the better,’ what safeguards would there be to ensure that the baby whose parts were to be ‘harvested’ would really be dead prior to the transplants?” they asked.
They also pointed out that the current justification is, “Why not use these babies, since abortion is legal anyway?” In a few years’ time, this might easily be reformulated to: “Don’t we have to keep abortion legal in order to obtain fetal tissue?”
Melanie Phillips, writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, pointed out that: “even if this procedure is kept entirely separate from abortion, women with unwelcome pregnancies must inevitably be influenced by the knowledge that termination might help someone with a dreadful disease. How could such knowledge fail to be an inducement to abortion?”
She also noted that it devalues the sense of our own intrinsic worth to ‘recycle’ the aborted baby no matter how noble the motive. She concluded her list of objections forcefully:
“Primo Levi discovered in Auschwitz that there is a fate worse than death, and that is to lose our respect for our own humanity. It is a harsh argument for any one with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s but once we accept that the end justifies the means in medicine, then in the long run we are all dished [ruined].” The matter has not yet come before parliament.
The possibility that within a few years the need for fetal tissue may become one of the main reasons to keep abortion legal is not farfetched at all.
Before 1969, Canadian champions of legalized abortion swore high and low that nobody, but absolutely nobody would be forced to participate in abortion which they claimed, was entirely a matter between a woman and her doctor.
Today, Canadian taxpayers are paying at least $50 million every year to pay for more than 80,000 abortions. Any suggestion to cut public abortion funding is greeted with howls of rage.