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A Look Beyond Medical Ethics: The Fetal Tissue Issue

November 7, 2010

An Original Article By Just Call Me Charley

Scientists, physicians, and laypersons alike all share a common goal in preserving the quality of human life. For centuries, medical ethics have been bound by the Hippocratic Oath, which in contemporary physician ethics, is converted into the principle of “preventing harm by preserving life.” We may find the fact interesting to note that from no passage in the original Hippocratic Oath are these exact words extracted. In his work, “The Epidemics,” Hippocrates does not give priority to avoiding harm; rather, he states, “as to diseases, make a habit of two things – to help, or at least to do no harm.” (Veatch, 22+). The World Medical Association’s International Code of Medical Ethics, however, seems to be targeted at the abortion issue rather than at contemporary problems in the care of the terminally ill. The Hippocratic Oath and its variants, as well as the ethical problems it raises in relation to fetal tissue research, is thus far, one of the most popular topics of heated discussion in our decade.

Let us examine more closely the significance of integrating the aborted fetus into our conventional medical practice of curing the ill. Perhaps we can set aside, for a moment, the moral issues dealing with the entire spectrum of legalized abortion. If we can temporarily push aside all memories of the historical ban of fetal tissue research, the debatable questions about where life begins and when it ends, as well as the physician’s oath which has been given the dignity of latinization into the formula primum non nocere, “first do no harm,” then we can focus more on the true nature of fetal tissue research.

In fact, that is just what the National Institute of health (NIH) did on December 14, 1988. NIH wisely invited more than fifty individuals which included representatives of sixteen groups to present their views in public sessions (Goldberg, 88). The Panel separated the transplantation of fetal tissue from issues involving abortion. In so doing, the Panel was able to delineate several guidelines in the use of fetal tissue in hopes of calming a growing public concern. These guidelines placed restrictions on the fetal tissue. Specifically, fetal tissue was to be taken only from dead fetuses, and no payment for the tissue was to transpire between scientist and physician, or likewise, between the mother from whom the fetus was extracted and the scientific or medical industries. Also, intrafamilial donations were to be rejected by the scientific community. The Panel’s conclusion was that “although it is of moral relevance that the fetal tissue is obtained from an induced abortion (rather than a spontaneous abortion or an interrupted ectopic pregnancy), use of the tissue in research is acceptable public policy because abortion is legal and…the research in question is intended to achieve significant medical goals” (Annas, 182).

According to the Advisory Committee of the NIH, the Panel adopted the recommendations that the following restrictions also be placed on the use of fetal tissue: (1) The abortion decision must be kept independent from the decision to retrieve and use fetal tissue, that the recipients be informed of the fetal source of the tissue, and that fetal tissue be accorded the same respect given other cadaveric human tissue; (2) Anonymity between donor and recipient should be maintained; (3) The timing and method of abortion should not be influenced by the potential uses of fetal tissue; and (4) The consent of the pregnant woman is necessary and sufficient for use of tissue unless the father objects (Sherman, 1081).

According to the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Panel’s December 5, 1988 report, the recommendations are almost unanimously adopted. Its conclusion stated that “there is sufficient evidence from animal experimentation to justify proceeding with human clinical trials in Parkinson disease and juvenile diabetes” (Consultants, 2).

Despite the Panel’s efforts to find guidelines which would satisfy public consensus on the use of fetal tissue, however, a cascade of dissenting voices cried down from pro-life groups and the Bush Administration (DeTurris, 20). In rebuking the Panel’s conclusion, dissenter James Butchaell in his “University Policy on Experimental Use of Aborted Fetal Tissue,” argues that “research using electively aborted fetuses is ethically compromised by the absence of authentic informed consent, by incentives it will offer for more abortions, and by complicity with the abortion” (9+). His opinion was shared by pro-life enthusiasts nationwide.

As in most cases where ethics are concerned, the Panel’s report prompted a response that would capsulize the national debate. The dissenters’ central argument was that federal funding of fetal research would “institutionalize” government complicity with the abortion industry. Perhaps this would be the result of the federal funding; but, in view of mounting scientific evidence pointing the way to possibly one day eradicating a vast array of disease, we have to ask ourselves if this would be such a detrimental effect, after all.

Despite the ability of modern-day science to utilize fetal tissue to ameliorate devastating diseases, we still have not been successful in transcending the moral issues behind the use of fetal tissue as a “by-product of abortion for national consumption.” Before research using this specialized tissue can surge ahead to better the quality of life for future generations, we must first be able to take a look beyond restrictions placed on medical ethics involving the fetal tissue issue.

© Just Call Me Charley

Works Cited

Annas, George J. Standard of Care: The Law of American Bioethics. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993: 180+.

Butchaell, J.T. University Policy on Experimental Use of Aborted Fetal Tissue 1988. IRB 10(4): 7-11.

Consultants of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Report of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplant Panel, Washington, D.C.: National Institutes of Health, 1988: 10.

DeTurris, Mary. “Let’s Put a Limit on Fetal-Tissue Research.” US Catholic Oct 1994: 59 (10): 19-24.

Elias, Sherman. “The Politics of Transplantation of Human Fetal Tissue.” New England Journal of Medicine 1989; 320: 1079-1082.

Goldberg, Jeff. “Fetal Attraction.” Discover July 1995: 16 (7): 86-93.

Veatch, Robert M. A Theory of Medical Ethics. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1981: 24-56.

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