In the wake of videos exposing its involvement in trading fetal organs, Planned Parenthood has resorted to a “silver lining” defense. The taking of brains, hearts, lungs and livers from the unborn, even the delivery of intact fetal bodies to commercial middlemen, is hailed as a valid scientific procedure. The words “treat and cure” are used.
Proponents of using fetal body parts from induced abortion claim three areas of medical research need harvested tissue: transplantation to treat diseases and injuries, vaccine development and basic biology research. Yet the facts show neither necessity nor therapeutic success when relying on an aborted baby’s organs and tissues.
First, a little history. Human fetal tissue transplant research began decades ago. The first recorded fetal tissue transplants were in the 1920s in the U.K. and Italy; the transplants failed. In the United States, the earliest documented attempts came in the 1930s, to treat diabetes, and they also failed, as did transplant attempts in succeeding decades. By 1991 approximately 1,500 people had received fetal pancreatic tissue transplants in attempts to treat diabetes, mostly in the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Up to 24 fetuses were used per transplant, but fewer than 2 percent of patients responded. Today, rather than failed fetal tissue, patients take insulin shots and pharmaceuticals to control their diabetes, and adult stem cell transplants have shown initial success at ameliorating diabetes.
Between 1960 and 1990, numerous attempts were made to transplant fetal liver and thymus for various conditions. According to a review just last year, “the clinical results and patient survival rates were largely dismal.” Conditions such as anemias and immunodeficiencies are now treated routinely with adult stem cells, including umbilical cord blood stem cells, in some instances even while the patient is still in the womb.
Between 1988 and 1994, roughly 140 Parkinson’s disease patients received fetal tissue (up to six fetuses per patient), with varying results. But this glimmer of utility faded when subsequent reports showed that severe problems developed from the transplants, including growth of non-brain tissues (e.g., skinlike tissue, hair, cartilage) in the brain. The first full clinical trial (funded by the National Institutes of Health) using fetal tissue for Parkinson’s patients was prominently featured in The New York Times in 2001, documenting the tragic results. Doctors described the patients writhing, twisting, and jerking with uncontrollable movements, further noting the results were “absolutely devastating,” “tragic, catastrophic,” “a real nightmare.” A second large, controlled study published in 2003 and also funded by NIH showed similar results, with over half of the patients developing potentially disabling tremors caused by the fetal brain tissue transplants.
These two large studies led to a moratorium on fetal tissue transplants for Parkinson’s. Long-term follow-up of a few of the patients in these studies showed that even the grafted fetal tissue that grew in patients’ brains took on signs of the disease and were not effective.
Disastrous results for patients are seen not only with fetal tissue but also with fetal stem cells. In a recent report, a young boy developed tumors on his spine resulting from fetal stem cells injected into his body.
In decided contrast to results from fetal tissue, a recent review found that as of December 2012, over one million patients had been treated with hematopoietic (blood-forming) adult stem cells (the basis of bone marrow or cord blood transplants), with uncounted additional patients benefitting from other adult stem cell types and transplants.
In terms of claims regarding vaccine development, it is true that early attempts (1940s and ‘50s) at growing viruses used cultures of mixed human fetal tissue, because it was the only human tissue that scientists knew how to grow in the lab at that time. For the same reason, viruses including poliovirus were often grown in human fetal cell lines such as WI-38 and MRC-5 in the 1960s and 1970s. But now most manufacturers of polio vaccine and other vaccines use other, more suitable cell types including monkey cells, and most do not use fetal cells. Newer cell lines and better culture techniques make reliance on fetal cells antiquated. Moreover, the Centers for Disease Control and other leading medical authorities now say, “No new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make these vaccines, now or in the future.”
A clear example of the lack of necessity for further fetal tissue is development of the new vaccine — rVSV-ZEBOV — against Ebola virus. The successful results of the field trial were published on July 31, 2015 in the journal Lancet, welcome news in the fight against this deadly disease. This successful Ebola vaccine was developed without using fetal tissue or fetal cell lines, but rather with Vero, a monkey cell line, demonstrating again that medical science has moved well beyond any need for fetal tissue in productive medical research.
Broad, undefined claims also continue to be made that fetal tissue is needed to study disease biology or generic development. It is telling that these assertions never cite specific results, but only vague promises, still clinging to antiquated science (not to mention medieval ideas of organ harvest). Current, progressive alternatives such as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells provide an unlimited source of cells for study, and can be produced from the tissue of any human being without harm to the donor. These iPS cells, whose creation won the Nobel Prize, have the ability to form virtually any cell or tissue type for basic study, disease modeling or potential clinical application. Furthermore, stem cells from umbilical cord blood also show significant potential not only as laboratory models but also for therapy, and are already treating thousands of patients for numerous conditions.
The long and short of it is that the heyday of fetal tissue research never really happened, and the gift of adult stem cell science has rendered the occasionally barbaric methods of the past functionally obsolete. Congress is right to put an end to this brutal trade once and for all and to defund its remnant of ghoulish devotees.
• Bill Cassidy is a physician currently serving in the U.S. Senate where he represents Louisiana. David Prentice is the vice president and research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a former professor of medical and molecular genetics.
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