Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Sale of Fetal Tissue


Virtually everyone is familiar with Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie. Myra Christopher (Foley Chair at the Center and former Center CEO) and Rosemary Flanigan (Retired Center Program Staff) have decided to regularly contribute to the Center for Practical Bioethics’ blog and call it “Tuesdays with Rosemary and Myra” (even though it won’t necessarily be published on a Tuesday). Read more about Rosemary and Myra at the bottom of this post.

The Sale of Fetal Tissue

M:  Rosemary, you know all the hub-bub about the video of the executive from Planned Parenthood being caught on tape talking about the sale of fetal tissue to two people posing as employees of a company looking to procure fetal tissue for research purposes. It’s been all over the Internet…

R:  I do know about it. It’s gone viral!

M:  It certainly has, and it has provided fodder for those hoping to be nominated by one of the parties for the 2016 presidential election. The video has been proven to be an example of “hit and run” journalism, but that doesn’t negate the ethical question that underpins it, i.e., “Is it acceptable to sell fetal tissue?” And that’s what I want to talk about.

R:  And I want to ask is there any difference in fetal tissue and other human tissue, all of which gets “sold.”


R:  Of course, there is something special about fetal tissue, but does that mean that it can’t be used for research. It’s not the same kind of tissue that comes off your elbow…

M:  Why not? What makes it different?

R:  It is because of the potentiality involved in what it can or could become, but let’s don’t have an argument about that right now. Even though it will certainly come up in our argument later, I’m still going to say that fetal tissue can be used for research purposes.

M:  Okay, but your first claim reminds me of one that Don Marquis, a philosopher at Kansas University, made in an argument against abortion years ago in an article he wrote for the Center. He said the difference between tissue from your elbow and a fetus is that the elbow has a past, i.e., we know something about the arm it hinged, but has no future, whereas a fetus has a future but no past that could reveal anything about its history or values. Is that your argument?

R:  No! It’s not just about tissue’s history; I am trying to skirt intrinsic worth. So, don’t you push me into talking about that, Myra Christopher. I hate objective whatevers!

M:  Whatevers? Sorry, Rosemary, but I want to push you just a little. Most all of us will say that human life is sacred/special, and what I want to talk about may align with your “potentiality” comment, but it may not; I don’t know. But I want to talk to you about the difference between human tissue and a human “being.”

R: I would find it morally reprehensible to use fetal tissue for insignificant research purposes.

M: You‘re still avoiding my issue, but OK….  Insignificant research like what?

R:  I’m trying to get circumstances involved here so that they cast a moral evaluation on their use in one instance and their not being used in another. For example, I would not object to fetal stem cells being used to find cures for cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease, but I would find it morally reprehensible to use fetal tissue to find a better face cream and make old women look younger.

M:  I agree. I think it is repulsive. It reminds me of the former chair of the President’s Bioethics Commission Leon Kass’s determination based on what he called the “yuck factor”, i.e., if it is just plain old gross, it may be just plain old wrong.

R:  I’ve thought this for a long time, and there is something to be said that should lead us to reflect on why we feel the “yuck”, and maybe in some instances it should cause something to be tagged “unethical”, but in other instances it may simply be a societal “no-no”.

M: I think the point you are getting to is important – not just in this discussion, but in many arguments claimed to be “ethical arguments”. There are important distinctions that should be made between ethics, social norms, etiquette, and the aesthetic.

Last night, I was thinking about us possibly blogging about this topic today, and I remembered being at a women’s rights rally once and a person claiming to be absolutely opposed to abortion was walking around trying to force people to look at an aborted fetus she had in a box. It struck me as the epitomy of irony that a person crusading for the sanctity of life would objectify a fetus for political purposes. 

R:  Poor soul! She was very confused. 

M:  Rosemary, when I was thinking about this last night, I thought about the many, many times I have heard you ask (when teaching ethics committee members), “Is it wrong to torture little children?”

R:  “Needlessly, needlessly torturing little children!” Is what I asked? The point behind that was that, most often, general rules need to have adverbs to make them valid and true.

M:  I agree and add that speaking in “absolute” terms almost always forces you into a corner. But I want to go back to the distinction I need to make between human “tissue” and human “beings” Because it is critical to my position.

For me, “being” implies “personhood” and by that I mean an independent individual whether 1 day old or 100 years old. I would argue that it applies only to fetuses that are sustainable independent of the mother.

R:  You’re not placing the same meaning on potentiality that I am. So, you and I will have a different argument because we differ in the meaning of the potentiality involved in the fetus. That is so simple to me. You want to say that the point of differentiation is when it (the fetus) can live on its own. I say that is not the point; we have to respect it until it gets there; so I am going to call for more heavy arguments for the use of fetal tissue than you would before it is sustainable.

What I'm saying is that justification for use of fetal tissue ought to be weightier the closer the fetus comes to live birth before being aborted. I'm trying to show that potentiality develops and thus the arguments must take that development into account.

M:  I think that’s true. However, I think at a certain point in the development of the fetus our lines cross, and we find ourselves at the same place. However, I want to say that I agree wholeheartedly that fetal tissue, no matter the gestational age of the fetus from which it comes, should always be treated with respect. 

I am reminded of a situation years ago, probably 20 years ago, when a faith-based hospital reached out to the Center for help in deciding what to do with fetal tissue that was not suitable for research. Fertility specialists in their institution were burning such tissue in trash cans in their clinic. That is one extreme. Another was a time when the Center was contacted by a hospital because a group was demanding that the hospital “bury” fetuses with a proper ceremony – no matter its gestational stage.

R:  Why do you call burning tissue in a trash can an extreme?

M:  Good question, because I wouldn’t find it objectionable to burn it in the hospital’s incinerator.  I think the “aesthetics” of the situation were objectionable to me. The whole idea that it was “trash” bothered me and others in the hospital. 

R:  I see it’s not the “burning”; it’s the “trash” that bothers you. So much of these arguments depend on the way we use language and define specific terms.

M: Back to the Planned Parenthood fiasco; I think we agree and disagree about components of this situation. Although we get there along different paths, we agree that when used for significant research that could potentially help people living with disease and injury AND when conducted in done in a way that is respectful of the “donation”, the use of fetal tissue in research can be justified.

However, there are other important factors as well, including “tone”, context, and intent when in discussion about ethically sensitive issues.

About Rosemary and Myra

For several years before her retirement, Rosemary facilitated an online discussion group, primarily for ethics committee members, which had a faithful following. We hope some who participated and others will read our blog posts and respond with their thoughts on whatever subject we are writing about. We would also be grateful if you would provide suggestions for future blog topics. With your help, the two of us are moving into the 21st century, but for Pete’s sake, don’t expect us to tweet!

We have decided to write a regular blog for several reasons. First, there has never been a greater need for ethical reflection than there is today. We both agree about that, but we are very different people, and often disagree on issues. We hope it will be helpful for us to model respectful disagreement. In addition, we just finished writing a history of the Center which took us three years, and we enjoyed doing that so much that we need an excuse to continue writing together on a weekly basis. So, we don’t mind bothering you with our ideas.

I call myself a “philosophical Christian agnostic” and Rosemary is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. Rosemary taught high school English and philosophy at Rockhurst University. She is a stickler for the “King’s English” and proper grammar. I grew up in Texas and just like to talk. We are both old; I turned 68 in July; Rosemary is older. We both have had training and education in ethics, but Rosemary has a PhD. We have both worked in bioethics for many years, and we both LOVE to argue. As Rosemary says, “Doing ethics is all about argument.” But ethics is not about mean-spirited disrespectful exchanges that are so prevalent today in a “red-state/blue-state culture.” Through blogging, we hope that our agreements and disagreements will demonstrate that we can argue respectfully and still love and care about one another.

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