Fetal tissue research, which has led to the near elimination of diseases like polio and measles, is increasingly threatened by political fighting over abortion, according to a recent analysis by the Guttmacher Institute. While fetal tissue research has long been entangled with abortion politics, scientists fear that the latest controversy might slow or even altogether halt current research aimed at understanding and eradicating HIV, Ebola, and Alzheimers.
“We’re in a fight for the future of cures to the diseases that will affect us all,” Gail Robertson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who uses fetal tissue to study heart disease, told Mother Jones.
Fetal cells—which come from elective abortions after the ninth week—are ideal for research because they divide rapidly and adapt easily. The federal government has funded fetal tissue research since the 1950s; in 2014 the National Institutes of Health provided around $76 million for research projects using fetal cells, according to an analysis by Nature. Fetal tissue research has been credited with helping to create vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis A and rabies, among other diseases.
Fetal tissue donation and research has been strictly regulated since 1975. Regulations dictate that a woman should not be paid to terminate her pregnancy, and that scientists should have no say over the timing or method of an abortion that will produce fetal tissue. Federal regulations also make it illegal to sell fetal tissue, although reimbursements for transportation, processing, and storage are allowed.
Recently, life-saving fetal tissue research has come under attack. The firestorm began this summer, when an anti-abortion group called the Center for Medical Progress released a series of secretly recorded videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the illegal sale of fetal tissue.
“The goal of our investigation is to reveal the truth about Planned Parenthood’s trafficking and sale of aborted baby body parts for profit,” David Daleiden, the head of CMP, said in a statement. “Taxpayers should not be paying for these atrocities against humanity.”
Soon, lawmakers around the country proposed defunding Planned Parenthood, just as Daleiden and his fellow activists intended. So far, eleven states have investigated and subsequently cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing. (In fact, an investigation into Planned Parenthood in Texas instead led to the indictment of two anti-abortion activists who made the undercover videos.)
“They don’t care about fetal-tissue research,” Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, said of the Center for Medical Progress and their videos. “It is just an angle to go after safe, legal abortion.”
Women who have actually donated tissue after an abortion say they were grateful to have had the option. “It was horrible for us to have to end a much-wanted pregnancy, but we made the best of it by donating the fetal tissue for research,” Katie Lyon wrote in Time. “We figured that donating the tissue could perhaps spare other families the painful situation we found ourselves in.”
But the Center for Medical Progress’ attack on fetal tissue research has had far-reaching consequences. Already, some fetal tissue donation programs have shuttered; tissue donations at labs across the country have decreased; and legislation has been introduced in nine states that could effectively end fetal tissue research in certain states, according to Mother Jones. Officials at organizations that collect fetal tissue have received death threats.
Scientists warn that wherever individuals fall in the abortion debate, we all stand to suffer if fetal tissue research is restricted.
“Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue,” bioethicist R. Alta Charo wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us….Any discussion of the ethics of fetal tissue research must begin with its unimpeachable claim to have saved the lives and health of millions of people.”
Zoe Greenberg is a reporter and writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has appeared in RH Reality Check, Salon, Ozy, and The Chicago Reader.