The case for fetal-cell research

We first acquired the stem cells from the red receptacles of a local hospital’s labor and delivery ward, delivered to our lab at the University of Southern California. I would reach into the large medical waste containers and pull out the tree-like branches of the placenta, discarded after a baby had been born. Squeezing the umbilical cord that had so recently been attached to new life, the blood, laden with stem cells, would come dripping out.

But sometimes a different package would arrive at our lab. Despite my distaste for wringing placentas, I felt more squeamish about what lay inside the unassuming white box. Packed in the ice was a crescent-shaped sliver of dark red tissue: a human liver. Just like the placentas that were discarded after birth, this tissue was originally destined for medical waste following an abortion.

Although their fates were similar, their origins couldn’t be more different. One source was the byproduct of celebration, the other a procedure often marked with stigma and shame. While under the bright focus of the microscope the cells we isolated were indistinguishable, in our minds there was a significant difference.

The reality is – there is no difference. I could swap the labels and neurotic hangups would switch just as easy.

Stem cell science is a big deal in California, thanks to the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state agency that has allocated almost $2 billion in research grants since 2004 (federal funding is still highly restricted). To meet the demand for cells, researchers turned to a procedure protected by federal law: abortions. The discarded tissue from terminated pregnancies, performed up to 26 weeks in California, is a rich source of stem cells…

The use of fetal tissue in research is not new. Fetal cells extracted from the lungs of two aborted fetuses from Europe in the 1960s are still being propagated in cell culture. They’re so successful that today we still use them to produce vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. From two terminated pregnancies, countless lives have been spared.

It isn’t just vaccines. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have injected neural stem cells into two patients to treat their spinal cord injuries. And progress is being made in the use of stem-cell therapies against cancer, blindness, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, H.I.V. and diabetes…

Perhaps this is why it was difficult to hear Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, discuss the organs of aborted fetuses so casually in surreptitiously recorded conversations with anti-abortion activists posing as fetal-tissue buyers. It’s understandable that politicians, angered by her callous tone, are investigating how fetal tissue is handled and how research is conducted, despite the strict institutional review that governs the use of anatomical tissue donated for research.

Politicians aren’t “angered by her callous tone” they’re excited by one more opportunity to turn up their patriarchal opposition to women making reproductive choices without their approval. Don’t confuse opportunism with judicious thought.

The choice I made is repeated every day, in labs all over the world. Researchers have no say in whether a fetus is aborted or develops into a human baby; those decisions are made by women and shaped by politicians. Yet their science, performed on discarded tissue, has the ability to save lives. It already has.

Choices surrounded by politicians, priests and superstition. The facts of life and science may be difficult for some folks to deal with; but, at least they’re grounded in reality. Making decisions based upon the greatest good for the greatest number ain’t a bad starting place.

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