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Fetal Tissue Research: A Growing Concern

November 8, 2010

Scientists and pro-life advocates worldwide have cultivated an escalating interest in fetal tissue research. This controversial method of scientific investigation involves the utilization of human fetal tissues in the research of promising cures for diseases affecting the central nervous, rheumatic, cardiac and integumentary systems, respectively. The curative properties of human fetal tissue promises to offer a remedy or relief for mounting numbers of disabled individuals whose only hope of amelioration is overshadowed by anti-abortionists who continue to oppose the loss of one human life in order to remedy the diseased condition of another. To understand why the controversy has flourished, we must first examine what fetal tissue research means to opposing sides. The term “fetus” is a Latin word which means “a young one.” Webster’s Dictionary even furthers the definition as a “developing human from usually three months after conception to birth.”

Let us further examine what it means to be a fetus, the stage of life which each of us transgressed prior to our own births. At just twelve weeks into its development, the fetus is already recognizable as a “baby”. Fingers and toes are fully formed, and the nails are starting to appear. Movements of the limbs are coordinated. The ear, nose, and mouth openings are developed, and the fetus begins to swallow amniotic fluid and pass a small amount of urine back into the amniotic sac. The fetal heart is beating strongly. It can be heard by means of an ultrasound detector. The external genitals appear, making the sex of the baby obvious. The “baby” would be about as long as our hand if we were to fully extends the legs from its body. The fetal weight is about 14 grams (Brudenell, 78+). At this stage of “life,” the fetus is aborted by expectant mothers who wish to terminate the pregnancy. It is also at this stage that scientists are interested in the fresh fetal tissue for research purposes.

Fetal tissue research in the United States was banned for political reasons during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, during which time, the National Institute for Health (NIH) supported the contention that the use of fetal tissue for research was “an unethical approach to scientific discovery” (Sanders, 401). It was during this period in history that the predominately Catholic pro-life activists lobbied for a ban against both abortion and fetal tissue research. However, according to his article, “The Political Power of the Catholic Church: American Catholics: A social and Political Portrait,” Albert Menedez reveals that in 1993, over 60 percent of the Catholics in Congress favored president Clinton’s support of lifting the ban on fetal tissue research (19). And in his article in Science, Thompson cites that “fetal tissue research is on the rebound and that government financing continues to support research for the National Institutes of Health in the United States” (601). However, during the political ban, fetal tissue research was not interrupted. Privately-funded biomedical research companies diligently continued their search for cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and related dementias which afflicted approximately 3.5 million individuals in 1989 (Rosner, 1175).

Today, government-funded research quietly continues as the topic of fetal tissue research has temporarily been hidden in the shadows of a more pressing political agenda. Left alone to scientists, we may one day see a cure for such ailments as diabetes, paraplegia, connective tissue disorders, and even the possibility of a remedy for liver disease. Research also continues into alternatives in coronary artery disease.

Meanwhile, the demand for the fetal tissue viable for transplant continues to mount. At what cost are these cures incurred? How many more abortions are projected for each cure? Is fetal tissue obtained at the moral expense of scientists, the fortunate recipients of fetal tissue, the women who choose to terminate an unwanted “fetus,” and even at the expense of the unborn children who will never transgress the first trimester as we once did?

One day, we may be faced with a disease which can effectively be cured by the transplantation of someone’s unborn baby. How will be react knowing that an unwanted life was traded for our own welfare and life extension? We must scrutinize many complicated issues to find the answers to these difficult questions. Fetal tissue research continues its two-decade tradition in being a controversial topic of growing concern for everyone involved.

© Just Call Me Charley

Works Cited

Brudenell, Michael, Malcolm Chiswick, Barbara Nash, Patricia Gilbert and Janet Smy. The Complete Book of Baby Care. London: Octopus Books, 1978: 34-42.

Menedez, Albert. “The Political Power of the Catholic Church: American Catholics: A Social and Political Portrait.” Humanist Sep-Oct 1993: 53 (5): 17-20.

Rosner, F. “Fetal Tissue Research and Transplantation.” New York State Journal of Medicine Mar 1993: 93 (3): 1174-7.

Sanders, L.M. “Ethical Ground Rules for Fetal Tissue Research in the Postmoratorium Era.” West Journal of Medicine Sep 1993: 159 (3): 400-7.

Thompson, L. “Fetal Tissue on the Rebound.” Science 4 Feb 1994: 263 (5147): 601.

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