Choosing Only Some Life
Terry H. Schwadron
June 7, 2019
The White House decision this week to bar — again — the use of fetal tissue in federally funded medical research was a political finding, of course, not a scientific one or one that helps preserve life.
But that decision raises some important questions — not only for those who have lobbied heavily for the ban as an expression of anti-abortion politics, but about the nature of the $100 million worth of medical studies supported annually by the National Institutes of Health.
If these studies result in saving lives of children and adults, is it less “ethical” than the pro-life position of banning the use of fetal tissue in the name of celebrating the disputed start of life for fetuses. Of course, determination of that start of life varies widely now across the country, depending on what state you live in.
One disturbing aspect of the abortion debate is that it is discussed as “pro-life” without relation to lots of other government-supported activities to keep people living after birth.
The NIH projects harvest tiny portions of fetal tissue to build lines of stem cells that are used to testdrugs, develop vaccines and study cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, birth defects, blindness and other disorders. One project uses the stem cells in mice to make them react more as humans as test subjects for new drugs, for example.
Former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also disallowed use of fetal tissue, while Bill Clinton and Barack Obama restored it, based on scientific need. Throughout, the practice has been barred or not because of politics. Even this week, we see Democratic candidate Joe Biden facing his most serious challenge yet over abortion politics.
Strangely, of course, no pro-lifers have stepped forward to deny the use of cadavers for doctor training, nor stopped the organ donation programs my Department of Motor Vehicles promotes. That’s what assures that this debate is all about politics, and not about what promotes life-sustaining research.
For much of that kind of work, scientists say, they need small amounts of fetal tissue, usually taken from umbilical cords outside the actual fetus, by the way, that are used to build lines of stem cells, biological slices that can be developed as medically blank slates to take on the specialized needs of tools to fight specific diseases.
Here’s a suggestion for the White House: Instead of banning such practice, how about approaching the problem from a different perspective. How about investing in alternative, synthetically produced stem cells? That might set the ethical issues aside, and, by the way, stoke another U.S. industry that could add jobs, become the world leader and take advantage of bio-technologies.
The NIH itself spends a smaller amount on seeking non-embryonic sources of stem cells. Expansion might speed a more palatable result that solves scientific concerns as well as political ones.
The magazine Sciencehas written a lot about stem cell generation. There has been much progress in recent years in generating the appropriate cells without introducing viruses or other imperfections. These stem cells will never be the same as fetal tissue, but are coming very close. Other studies have tried to focus on the use of adult cells as a source, though those generally have proved less flexible.
NIH already issues strict ethical standards for those applying for approved use of federal funds — something else not noted in the broad-brush White House ban. Those regulations call for ethical review of the sources of stem cells. If fetal stem cells are obtained from miscarried or stillborn fetuses, or if it is possible to remove them from fetuses without harming the fetuses, then no harm is done to the donor and such fetal stem cell research is considered ethical, for example. The use of tissue from in-vitro efforts is considered ethical. Since umbilical cords are detached from infants at birth, umbilical cord blood is an ethical source of stem cells.
According to stemcellresearch.org, stem cell research has already resulted in numerous instances of actual clinical benefit to patients. For example, patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, stroke, anemia, cancer, immunodeficiency, corneal damage, blood and liver diseases, heart attack, and diabetes — have experienced improved function following administration of therapies derived, whether from fetal tissue stem cells or non-embryonic cells.
Nevertheless, it is embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue that have gotten disproportionate attention from politicians. Accusations, including those proved false, that abortion clinics were unlawfully selling fetal tissue to researchers has generated opposition. This year’s spate of state legislative moves to severely limit or eliminate abortion has re-stoked efforts to block medical use. In that sense, the announcement was the latest in a series of Trump administration moves to appease opponents of abortion, a major faction in the president’s political base, reported The New York Times. Those include barring Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning money, and expanding protections for health care providers who refuse to take part in abortions on moral or religious grounds.
Of course, it also fits the Trump administration diminishing the role of science and research in policymaking.
Some states have suggested that if a Trump ban did come to pass, it might stimulate support for state-level funding sources. The $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was created by a state ballot initiative in response to the Bush-era restrictions, for example, and expects to run out of money after 2020 without a new source of funding. A renewed federal ban could help the California institute’s backers make a stronger case to voters and legislators for a new injection of funds.
We need policies that recognize the complexity of problems.