Fetal Tissue for Science: Planned Parenthood and Organ Harvesting

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Where is the psychological reaction to Planned Parenthood’s dispersal of fetal tissue for scientific research coming from? Disgust is the way we shield ourselves from harmful and disturbing thoughts and events. Copyright image by Decoded Science, all rights reserved.

You may have seen a video, released online, that showed a doctor from Planned Parenthood talking with actors, posing as buyers from a fetal tissue procurement company, about the pricing and use of fetal organs for scientific research.

This video has sparked a huge uproar and debate between the pro-choice and pro-life communities, and has generated many questions about the legality and appropriateness of the use of fetal tissues.

What makes using aborted fetuses for science a big deal to some people, and perfectly acceptable to others?

Planned Parenthood Video: Let’s Talk About Feelings

Why does the thought of using the body of an aborted baby for science make people recoil? What makes it such a moral outrage?

It all comes down to disgust.

Melissa Dittmann, in an article for the American Psychological Association, explains the views of Paul Rozin, PhD, a researcher in the area of disgust. Dr. Rozin’s research finds that the reaction of disgust has evolved from an instinctive reflex to avoid bodily harm – to a reflex that avoids harm to the soul.

Since the thought of death evokes fear, we naturally will want to avoid it. The negative reaction to abortion is how some people avoid psychological harm when faced with a distressing event.

The reaction to the use of aborted babies for science is just an extension of this. The fear and disgust of death is exacerbated by it being the death of an unborn child. This fear and disgust can then affect support for any research that deals with the use of aborted fetal tissue.

These feelings are extremely powerful, and when mixed with anger, can produce the moral outrage that has emerged with the release of the Planned Parenthood video.

Fetal Tissues for Scientific Research: Nothing New

Whichever side of the aisle you are on, you should be aware that the use of fetal tissue for research and science is not a new practice. Scientists have used these tissues to develop vaccines such as those for polio, rubella, measles, and varicella. In addition, researchers have also used fetal tissues to make medicine for those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.

Stanley Plotkin created the first vaccine with human cell strains. The rubella vaccine was developed at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Renat Latipov

According to the American Society for Cell Biology, fetal cells are valuable for research because they can divide rapidly and grow and adapt to new environments better than adult cells. In addition, because these fetal cells are normal and healthy, compared other cells that came from cancers or other abnormal tissues, they are more relevant to a variety of diseases and medical conditions.

New insights into birth defects and other developmental diseases have emerged from fetal tissue research. By comparing normal and abnormal development in fetal tissues, scientists can learn more about gene activation and other processes that lead to an array of problems, including Down’s Syndrome, SIDS, and miscarriages.

Fetal tissue transplantation can also be effective for patients with Parkinson’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Since fetal cells elicit less of an immune response than adult cells, it can significantly lower the risk of tissue rejection. In fact, a man with Parkinson’s disease has just recently received injections of fetal brain cells into his own brain. He is the first person in almost 20 years to undergo this process and may recover full control of his movements in about five years.

Is There Harm to the Mother?

When Decoded Science asked if the process of selectively choosing body parts during an abortion is dangerous to the mother, Dr. Rebecca Cohen, an OB/GYN, tells us a physician should not compromise a patient’s safety because of research. An ultrasound is often used as a guide to minimize the risk of injury to the patient. Dr. Cohen tells us,

The fetus is typically removed in pieces, not to selectively choose parts but because the cervix is not dilated enough for the whole fetus to come through at once.  Typically we will remove the parts closest to the cervix first, but the entire fetus and all of the placenta are removed by the completion of the procedure: leaving anything behind is a serious risk for infection and heavy bleeding.  If a physician were to focus solely on a particular organ, it could theoretically make the surgery longer or more dangerous (if it required significantly more complex manipulation); however any physician will keep their patient’s safety in the forefront.

Ultrasounds are often used for the protection of the mother during a second trimester abortion. Image by the US CDC

If the tissues were going to be used for research, according to Dr. Cohen, the physician must determine that after the procedure.

After completion, the physician has to examine the fetus and the placental tissue to make sure nothing was left behind in the uterus.

Dr. Cohen explains, “Intact organs that fit the researchers’ criteria would then be identified at that time, rather than during the abortion procedure when the patient could be affected. Any tissue is used only with the patient’s consent.

According to the video transcript, Planned Parenthood representative Deborah Nucatola, MD, Senior Director of Medical Services, Planned Parenthood Federation of America also explains that typically, doctors do not change procedure to harvest certain organs…

However, if there is a specific need from buyers, she explains that the procedure may change:

“So then you’re just kind of cognizant of where you put your graspers, you try to intentionally go above and below the thorax, so that, you know, we’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m going to basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact. And with the calvarium, in general, some people will actually try to change the presentation so that it’s not vertex, because when it’s vertex presentation, you never have enough dilation at the beginning of the case, unless you have real, huge amount of dilation to deliver an intact calvarium . So if you do it starting from the breech presentation, there’s dilation that happens as the case goes on, and often, the last, you can evacuate an intact calvarium at the end. So I mean there are certainly steps that can be taken…”

Fetal Tissue: Used for Scientific Research

The use of fetal organs for research is legal, when appropriate consent is given, and when doctors follow federal procedures – and science has been using these tissues for decades. On the other hand, reactions to the video are justifiable, given our nature to avoid death and harm.

In the long term, our society must choose whether the positive aspects of fetal tissue research are worth the cost of disgust – and not just when it’s a hot topic in the news.

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