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Let's put a limit on fetal-tissue research.

FETAL-TISSUE RESEARCH. THE WORDS sound antiseptic enough, almost vague. How bad could it be? Science must have its reasons. Right? Unfortunately science does have its reasons, but none of them is good enough to justify what will amount to the harvesting of body parts now that electively aborted fetal tissue can be used for transplants. No reason could ever be good enough to rationalize the possible abuses of pregnant women or fetuses to prolong the health and life of another. And yet, that is what this type of fetal-tissue research is all about--at its best.

At its worst, it is a Nazi-like effort to create a perfect human race, where diseases are "cured" by taking the healthy cells and organs of a developing baby and transplanting them into a sick person. Fetal-tissue research is nothing new, although it sounds like something out of a science-fiction story. And it is not likely to stop with cures for diseases. This is a slippery slope of the most dangerous kind, and at the bottom is eugenics gone mad.

As far back as 1928, there have been attempts to transplant fetal tissue, which is especially suitable for such operations because it is immature and flexible. According to physician Bernard Nathanson, who once ran one of the largest abortion clinics in the world and is now an avid prolife activist, fetal tissue is desirable because it can flourish even in an aging recipient; its proximity to diseased cells helps them regenerate; it matures and functions as healthy adult cells would, and it is not likely to be destroyed by the adult immune system.

In recent years, research has focused on the diseases most likely to be cured with fetal-tissue transplants: Parkinson's, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. For many people battling these chronic and often debilitating illnesses--and for the loved ones who must watch them suffer--these experiments may seem like a miracle cure, the answer to a prayer. And that's understandable in many ways. I have family members and friends who have diabetes and Parkinson's. When I try to put myself in their position, it's easy to see why good, moral people would opt for fetal-tissue treatment. After all, the fetuses used for the operations are voluntarily aborted; they were going to die anyway. At least through transplants their lives take on some meaning.

If one of these operations could save a parent, a spouse, a child, wouldn't it be easy to justify using tissue from a baby who was never going to be born? Wouldn't it be better to save one life rather than lose two? It's hard for an outsider to make that call when another's life hangs in the balance. Parkinson's disease alone afflicts more than half-a-million Americans, and although medicine can control the symptoms at first, its effectiveness wears off after time. Is it up to us to say that those people should live a life of misery even when the very tissue that could save them will be thrown out with medical waste at clinics across the country?

Maybe it's not politically correct, but I would have to say, yes, it is up to U.S. citizens. No matter how bad the illness, we must look beyond the less-than-descriptive words of medical technology and admit what lies at the heart of fetal-tissue research on electively aborted fetuses: trading one life for another. With the number of patients who would want this tissue, it would be impossible for even the high abortion rate in this country to keep up with the demand. So there is the danger that this will become an industry.

The protest will probably not begin any time soon, especially since President Clinton, in one of his first official acts as president last year, rescinded a five-year ban on using fetal tissue from elective abortions for transplants. Obviously, the government and special advisory boards established to research this issue have not always felt justified in supporting such procedures. This ban was established in 1989 after the Department of Health and Human Services reached a decision that there existed a very viable and real threat that the incidence of abortion would increase across the country. Those justifying the federal ban feared that if large amounts of fetal tissue were required for transplants, society may for the first time need and depend on the practice of elective abortion, rather than merely tolerate it.

Not only has the ban been lifted, but several months ago federal money--to the tune of $4.5 million--was awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to three hospitals for the sole purpose of transplanting fetal tissue into Parkinson's patients. It is believed that the tissue will assist Parkinson's sufferers in the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that is deficient in these patients. Previously such experiments were privately funded.

COLUMBIA-PRESBYTERIAN MEDICAL CENTER in New York City; North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York; and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver will share the grant money for the experiments on 40 Parkinson's patients. Twenty will receive injections of fetal tissue into their brains; another 20 will receive placebo injections, although they will have to go through the grueling operation that requires having two holes drilled into the skull while awake. Neither the patients nor the doctors will know who received the fake injections.

First of all, drilling holes into people's skulls as part of a random experiment seems a bit medieval to me. Couple that with the fact that many scientists admit that these transplant operations have not proven to be all that effective and should be further tested on animals and you have a very questionable--ethically, morally, and medically--experiment before you even begin to address the gruesome task of taking fetal tissue.

In addition to the physical brutality of removing fetal tissue, there are broader concerns as well. For instance, the demand for fetal tissue would far outweigh the supply, especially since each patient would require tissue from several unborn babies and because many methods of abortion would not preserve the tissue as required or retrieve it at the appropriate stage of development.

Some have suggested that this will lead to the cultivation of fetuses strictly for transplant parts, and it's easy to see why. Others have said that it will create a huge black market, with the women of the Third World becoming likely targets. Women in crisis pregnancies might be persuaded that their abortions would save the lives of others, and thereby make abortion a selfless, almost noble choice.

Instead of spending all this money and effort on morally questionable methods of disease control, scientists should focus their work on finding true cures that don't come at such a high price.

But cures and transplants are only the tip of the iceberg in the use of tissue of electively aborted fetuses. Gruesome cannot even begin to describe some of the other "research" with regard to the unborn. A British scientist made the news recently when he announced that he and his peers at Edinburgh University in Scotland had performed experiments on mice that gave them hope that some day, although it's not being done now, it will be possible to implant eggs from aborted babies into sterile women. In other words, they hope to produce children whose mothers were never born. Imagine the problems that would plague such children, not to mention the myriad moral and ethical questions that society would have to face.

I suppose some of this sounds almost too hard to believe. Maybe we can convince ourselves that it will never happen, that society and the government won't let it. But it is happening, just as test-tube babies and surrogate mothers went from being the stuff of make-believe to the stuff of everyday life, complete with courtroom dramas and made-for-TV movies.

But this is not television, and it's not make-believe. And who's to say it will stop there? What's to keep doctors from taking parts from not-so-healthy newborns to help those who have a better chance of survival or from taking organs from an elderly patient to prolong the life of a middle-aged patient? The possibilities are endless, and unless we start paying closer attention to the actions behind the technical language, there is no telling what--or who--will be next.

Bernard Nathanson, a visiting fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has suggested that if ovary and brain cell transplants become the norm, then widespread use of the tissue of electively aborted fetuses for cosmetic surgery, such as skin and hair transplants, won't be far behind.

It is up to each one of us to help stop the slide down the slippery slope. Then again, maybe the slippery slope isn't really an accurate description anymore. Perhaps, instead, we are peering over the edge of an abyss, where life has no value and birth is something relegated to petri dishes and laboratories. It's time to take a step back before we go over the brink and can't see right from wrong.


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

1. Fetal-tissue research will encourage acceptance of elective abortions. 79% agree 15% disagree 6% other

2. I would have no moral objections to using transplanted fetal tissue from any source if a loved one's or even my own life depended on it. 17% agree 74% disagree 9% other

3. Saving a life is enough justification for harvesting necessary tissue from electively aborted fetuses. 14% agree 82% disagree 4% other

4. President Clinton did the right thing by lifting the five-year ban on using fetal tissue from elective abortions for research. 12% agree 84% disagree 4% other

5. If a fetus is electively aborted, it's justifiable to use the tissue for medical purposes. 14% agree 79% disagree 7% other

6. The cultivation of fetuses strictly for transplant parts is a real threat for the future. 86% agree 11% disagree 3% other

7. Women who are undecided about whether to have an abortion will feel less guilty about one if they think it will help another person. 67% agree 23% disagree 10% other

8. The growing use of fetal tissue will lead to harvesting unborn children for science. 79% agree 16% disagree 5% other

9. As long as the fetal tissue used did not come from an electively aborted fetus, there is no problem in using it. 39% agree 50% disagree 11% other

10. Fetal-tissue transplants from electively aborted fetuses will make abortion more socially acceptable. 73% agree 22% disagree 5% other

11. The use of tissue from electively aborted fetuses threatens the dignity of life. 83% agree 13% disagree 4% other

12. Money spent on fetal-tissue research would be better spent finding other types of cures. 78% agree 17% disagree 5% other

13. Along with Mary DeTurris, I believe that none of science's reasons are good enough to justify the use of tissue from electively aborted fetuses. 84% agree 12% disagree 4% other

U.S. policy on this issue ought to be:

A carefully controlled program for a specific period of time with a definite end date. At that time, the issue should be on the agenda of the U.S. Congress for a full and complete discussion and public hearings. That's what a democracy is all about.

Robert Hertz Webster, N.Y.

A ban on the use of electively aborted fetal tissue.

Barb Frahm Tolono, Ill.

Research on or actual treatments for diseases that depend on fetal tissue are allowable only when the tissue needed for such research or treatment comes from fetuses who were stillborn or who died shortly after birth.

Name withheld West Des Moines, Iowa

Not to support this research with taxpayers' money.

Anthony T. Zawacki Meriden, Conn.

Elective abortion is murder. Scientific experiment at the cost of a life is morally wrong; as such, it should be outlawed.

Margaret Cammisa Hazleton, Pa.

Only naturally aborted tissue, if agreed to by the parent or guardian of the fetus with a signed donor card, should be used for research.

Name withheld Manville, N.J.

Not to use fetal tissue at all but to try to find another method or cure.

Sister Louise Dufour Sabattus, Me.

A total ban on the use of fetal tissue in treatment of disease and prohibition and careful monitoring of federal grants for research into these areas.

Name withheld Pittsburgh, Pa.

Using and experimenting with fetal tissue is to be outlawed not only in the U.S. but also worldwide. The money should be spent on finding cures that do not depend on the death of another.

Carol Lauri Fort Myers, Fla.

To permit small-scale, private research that's subject to government control for the sake of knowledge but without government funding.

Name withheld Malta, Ohio

To ban legal abortion altogether.

Lisa Caliendo Roselle Park, N.J.

We cannot kill innocent unborns to let others live.

Alice Stafford Muncie, Ind.

One of my biggest fears about medical research in the area of fetal

tissue is:

That it might encourage abortions among dubious mothers and or unscrupulous physicians.

Mary J. Harnden Hayward, Wis.

Discoveries which would find more usefulness for tissue and create more of a demand for fetuses, which would lead to more abortions and possibly even the harvesting of fetuses that were much older than three months or paying women for fetuses.

Name withheld Clifton Forge, Va.

The growing lack of respect for God's creation!

Vincent J. Vassallo Cinnaminson, N.J.

As a former research chemist, I do not fear research itself. My biggest concern is with the research community, which needs to monitor itself in terms of sound techniques and to monitor viable paths to follow. Open sharing of results and monitoring of sources and uses of research materials and results can provide the much needed "cures" without going to the extremes of Nazi-like efforts referred to in the article. We need to allow the good to happen while preventing the bad.

Name withheld Beavercreek, Ohio

Couples deliberately conceiving with the express purpose of aborting the fetus to use the tissue to possibly help another family member. It's not in the future, it's happening today! Where does it end?

Mary Jo Pfefferkorn Chaffee, Mo.

That the real gifts and benefits of medical research will get bogged down by politicians and people with agendas more concerned with promoting themselves and their causes than with finding ways to help all life--born and unborn.

Scott E. Gruber Bethlehem, Pa.

If dead babies are recycled for research, the premium put on the value of the tissue would adversely lead to black-market fetuses, and some women would get pregnant only to abort and receive payment for their dead babies.

Marie S. Masse Hanson, Mass.

That the value of human life will become nonexistent.

Glenn Ketcham Sioux Falls, S.D.

Encouraging abortions because of the success of fetal-tissue transplants.

Name withheld Mount Prospect, Ill.

As with most things in the U.S., what starts off as something good or beneficial quickly becomes abused or taken into excess and becomes detrimental.

N. Reid Howell, N.J.

It will lead to endless experimentation on all forms of life (human and animal). All will be at great risk. Scientists should cease trying to play God.

Lorraine M. Keehner Eldridge, Iowa

That other lives might be considered useful to further research in transplantation or for other reasons. Lives of the retarded or the elderly might be considered useful only if their body parts can be harvested to save someone else considered more useful to society.

Jane McCartney Sparta, N.J.

It will become one more so-called reason for the pro-choice movement to justify abortion.

Ruth M. Snow Baltimore, Md.

It will make the terrible Roe v. Wade decision even more acceptable and dash any hope of it ever being reversed sometime in the future.

Name withheld Edina, Minn.

General comments

We cannot trust our lawmakers to make good ethical laws, nor can we trust people to follow them, even if only ethical laws were enacted. We need to spend more time, money, and energy on educating people about ethics, morals, and their spiritual nature.

Mary Lou Kopp High Ridge, Mo.

I understand the argument that these fetuses will be aborted whether or not the tissue is used and therefore we should use them so that some good comes from the evil. But I disagree. Elective abortions are wrong and using the fetal tissue to possibly help someone else does not make it right. We must continue to fight for the rights of the unborn. They are not just fetuses, they are developing babies and are entitled to life, not to be discarded by one person (the mother) and then cut up and used for someone else's purposes.

Michele Mazelin Lafayette, Ind.

Hitler would love the U.S.A. of the '90s. The American government has perfected and sanitized the Holocaust! It is now socially acceptable to kill.

Timothy M. Brown Laurence Harbor, N.J.

This was a tough subject for me because being in the health-care field I know about the pain and anguish with research going too slow. I've lost many friends to AIDS while research continues. As a Christian, I cannot condone fetal-tissue research, no matter the benefits, if abuse is bound to occur.

Beatrice H. Abril Fort Lee, N.J.

I think Mary DeTurris has overreacted. Organ donation doesn't lead to murder, nor will fetal-tissue research lead to an increase in elective abortions--as long as we who object to elective abortions continue to work toward societal awareness of the dignity of life starting at conception.

Name withheld Chelmsford, Mass.

Education by God-believing people will do the most to halt the useless loss of life. As a nurse in community health, about 99 percent of patients seeking abortions change their minds after being educated.

Pat Lawson Fort Smith, Ark.

The Catholic Church may be the last bastion for life. As it says in the 1988 Catholic Almanac: "Science without conscience can only lead to man's ruin. What is technically possible is not for that very reason morally admissible. No one in any circumstance, can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being, from the moment of conception."

Ruth Oberbruner Burlington, Wis.

Research on fetal tissue that is obtained from natural miscarriage falls into the same category as people who donate their bodies after death for research. This has value in a society seeking answers to many human problems. However, when such research is fostered through self-chosen abortions or for abortions on demand, we have lost sight of our moral responsibilities, and before long, money becomes a part of the choice that is totally abhorrent to any thinking Christian. Human life is sacred and should be treated as sacred.

Geraldine Meyer Stevenson, Md.

I am ashamed of America. It has sold "In God We Trust" for sex, money, destruction of human life, and desecration of families. America's values today are in Sodom and Gomorrah--a far cry from the values in the early 1940s.

M. Lopez Brooklyn, N.Y.

We abhor drunken driving, which causes the deaths of innocent humans, but there is no moral question about the use of the victim's organs to help others. I do not see how this use encourages drunken driving nor how it relieves the drunken driver's guilt. We can condemn the act that makes the tissue or organs available but that should not deter the use of either.

Mary Geber Mendota, Ill.

There is no question that fetal-tissue research threatens the dignity of life. Not only will it ease the guilt of a woman who has an abortion--because she has been told cures may be found through this research--but it also empowers the government, scientists, and doctors to decide which life is more important. They will have to decide who gets the treatment. What it amounts to is the dethroning of God as the controller of human life.

Doug Seubert Marshfield, Wis.

I cared for my mother during her struggle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease--a fatal, untreatable neuromuscular disease). I miss her every day. Would I have sacrificed a child in the womb for her? No. Would she have allowed me to do so? An even more resounding no! Her suffering was almost unbearable to watch. But we got through it--she with quiet dignity and gentle humor, and me silently kicking and screaming through every bath and feeding--and yet, it was a grace-filled time. I understand the pain and despair of terminal illness. I also have learned a valuable lesson in the redemptive power of suffering. My children could not have been her sacrifice, but they most surely are her legacy.

Patricia Bukowski Newton, Pa.
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Title Annotation:article/readers' poll and letters; Sounding Board/Feedback
Author:DeTurris, Mary
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1994
Previous Article:Are your confessions doing any good?
Next Article:A day in the life of a parish priest.

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