Curing The Sick With The Dead! - Wayne Pleiter

Wayne Pleiter is an elder in the Canadian Reformed Church at Yarrow BC.

From the DEC. /98 issue of Reformed Perspective

The Ethics of Aborted Fetal Tissue Transplants.

There is a great deal of excitement and anticipation within the medical community about the prospects of using fetal tissue for transplantation into human patients who are victims of degenerative diseases. Yet there is a great deal of controversy as well!

This was first confirmed almost ten years ago at the University of Colorado when a middle-aged patient of Parkinson’s disease was implanted with fetal brain cells. The reports claimed apparent improvements in the patient’s ability to speak and walk. More recently surgeons from the University of Chicago further advanced into this new medical era in to combat the leading cause of blindness in North America. They transplanted retinal cells from an aborted fetus into the eye of an 80-year-old woman in order to stop her progressive blindness.

A further break-through was reported late in 1997 when it was announced that the first human trials would begin to treat spinal cord injury using fetal tissue grafting.

The reason for all the excitement within the medical community over fetal tissue technology develops from the feasibility of fetal tissue in treating various neural and endocrinal diseases. Positive results have been reported by scientists using fetal tissue technology to treat a diverse range of diseases including diabetes, leukemia, immune disorders and several neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntingdon’s and Alzheimer’s.

So why the controversy? The opposition surrounding these treatments was not due to the use of fetal tissue as such. The contention arose because the fetal tissue was taken from fetuses that were aborted for birth control reasons. There is no question that there is urgency in medical research to alleviate the suffering of victims of degenerative diseases. However serious ethical questions are being raised as to the source and procurement of the necessary tissue. While some experts in the medical community forecast unlimited potential for fetal tissue technology, others have expressed deep concern as to the limits to the ethical and moral dynamics of the issue.

Over the past decade the development of the fetal tissue technology has been hamstrung by the ethical debate both in the medical and political spheres. We may use this time to reflect on the moral questions of the fetal technology as well as to take the opportunity to learn and study the issue from a Christian perspective

The History of Fetal Tissue Transplants

The history of fetal tissue transplantation dates as far back as the 1880s. Attempts in that period involved transplanting tissue from fetal animals into adult animals. Transplant research in the 20th century focused on using fetal cells to combat human sickness and disease. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for a vaccine developed for polio using fetal kidney cells. In the late fifties, another common vaccine used fetal cells for the prevention of measles. However, there was no real momentum in fetal tissue research up until the 1970’s. This radically changed in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized ‘on demand’ abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. While the courts granted the legal right to elective abortions, the moral right was generally deemed unacceptable by society. This is evident with the decision of a Swedish and American medical team who terminated animal experimentation because they deemed it ethically impossible to substantiate their test result on human subjects.

However this did not prevent other research teams across the world to continue using aborted fetuses for the research and treatment of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. By early 1988 fetal transplants were performed in the USA, Mexico, Sweden, England and even in Cuba. In the United States, research into this area was slowed considerably in 1988, when the Reagan Administration banned federal funding for research using tissue obtained from abortions. This ban was lifted in 1993 by the Clinton Administration thereby allowing intense research to continue into this area.

Just recently an attempt was made in the USA Senate to restrict the use of fetuses obtained from elective abortion. Republican Senator Dan Koats proposed this restriction as he felt that the use of aborted fetus tissue would create an irreversible economic and institutional bond between abortion centers and biomedical centres. Needless to say, this commendable amendment was defeated in the Senate.

The Attraction of Fetal Tissue

With more than one and a half million Americans suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, it is easy to understand why the potential benefit of fetal tissue technology is used as justification. The attraction to fetal tissue lies in its unusual ability to regenerate, for once the fetal tissue has been transplanted it continues to develop and maintain growth. As the tissue cells are soft and pliable, it provides numerous advantages to the patient and the medical practitioners. These advantages include being easy to work with, its adaptability to new environments, the ease of storage by freezing and finally because the fetal tissue lacks an developed immune system it is less likely to be rejected by its recipient.

If the current (and potential) benefits of fetal tissue transplantation weren’t so convincing there would never be the intense ethical debate surrounding this controversial subject. Indeed, it is precisely because this technology is successful that many attempt to divorce the morality of abortion from fetal tissue transplants. Yet the greater the availability of fetal tissue as a result of abortions, the greater the ethical debate of whether using this fetal tissue necessarily implies approval or disapproval of abortion.

Morality of Abortion and Fetal Tissues Transplants

Before we go any further, it would be prudent to determine whether the moral and ethical issues of abortion can be separated from fetal tissue transplantation. This is the heart of the issue, as this is the principle argument used to justify the use of aborted fetuses in transplants. Can one even oppose abortion and still be in favour of aborted fetal tissue research and transplantation?. As long as family planning abortions are legal, it is argued that they will be performed regardless of what is decided about the medicinal use for the fetal tissue.

James Burtchaell’s case study in the ‘IBR: A Review of Human Subjects Research’ (July/Aug. 1988 edition on ‘University Policy on Experimental Use of Aborted Fetal Tissue’), contended that there is indeed a moral complicity with the abortionist and the user of fetal tissue from elective abortions. He correctly stated ‘One is corrupted by association with the principle agent, and is a comrade with the abortionist by resorting to him or her for a study supply of tissue from unborn humans who have been purposely destroyed.’ In a different context, scripture bluntly states: ‘Do not be deceived: "Bad company corrupts good morals."’ (1 Corinthians 15:33 NASB)

Doing a good deed, like relieving the suffering of a Parkinson’s disease patient, when it is a result of a corrupt partnership with the abortionist cannot vindicate one’s conscience. Even if it is after the fact, they clearly receive the ‘benefit’ from the injurious and destructive behaviour. The doctor or researcher is not in a morally neutral position but is the silent accomplice of another’s murderous act.

A clear example of this is the banker, who regards drug trading, as morally wrong yet has no problem accepting drug money at his bank in order to finance low income housing for the community. Despite the fact the banker is not involved with actual selling of narcotics, he would be involved in conspiracy with the drug trade.

It is not possible to separate the morality (or the lack thereof) associated with the act of abortion from the use of aborted fetuses in tissue transplants. Even though there is no direct involvement with the actual murder of the unborn, there is the association by virtue of supply. Try as they might, the researchers or medical community cannot distance themselves from the abortionists who provide them with a continuous supply of the fetal body tissue! By receiving the fetal tissue from elective abortions, the medical community participates in the abortionist’s evil deeds. (cf. 2 John 11. NASB) They have simply been enticed by the ‘man of violence’ who leads them in a way that is not good. (cf. Proverbs 16:29 NASB)

The ‘Benefits’ of Abortion

In futile attempts to establish some moral credibility, appeals are made to the benefits derived from using aborted fetal tissue. Can something good be achieved from some evil? Would it not be an absolute waste if the cells for aborted fetuses were simply discarded?

The ‘Christian’ lady who was being treated for progressive blindness was assured by her minister that she ‘had nothing to do with the abortion, and it would just compound the tragedy if the cells went to waste’. Her surgeon Dr. Ernest stated that aborted tissue would be discarded and questioned; ‘Is it wrong for us to scavenge it and try to do something positive?’

Dr. Siegler of the Maclean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, a leading facility in this fast growing field, had no problem to justify the use of aborted fetus in fetal cell research. He claims that because both abortions and fetal cell research was legal in the USA it would be possible ‘at least, it is theoretically possible that some good may come from both of them.’

We hear in these statements none other than the utilitarian concept of ‘the ends justify the means.’ But this is clearly wrong. Both the end result and the means themselves must be justified by some objective standard of good. Killing an unborn child, legal or not, cannot be justified on the standard of the Scriptures. The question boils done to whether or not we really allow the evil of abortion to continue in order to graciously provide relief for sufferers of degenerative diseases. From the reformed perspective, we must echo the words of the apostle Paul when he writes, ‘Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means!’ (Romans 6:1)

The Fetus as an ‘Organ’ Donation.

A second basis to justify the use of aborted fetuses in fetal tissue biotechnology is that the aborted fetus can be classified as a donor. Recently the legislation for the adult organ transplant program was expanded by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) to include the fetus as an organ donor. They justify this on the basis that the dead fetus parallels that of the dead adult cadaver as an organ donor.

However this argument is based on misrepresentation. While the donation of spontaneously aborted fetuses (i.e. miscarriage) may be governed on the same basis as adult cadaver organ donations the law goes too far to imply that the act of elective abortion is the same as spontaneous abortion. In the matter of a miscarriage, the mother has no ‘choice.’ In the case of an elective abortion, the mother clearly makes the choice to take the life of her unborn child! One child dies as a result of ‘medical complications’ while the other child’s death was purely intentional! Likewise, how can there be a similarity to adult transplants when the death of the fetus is intentionally caused and is not a result of an accident? ‘Accidents are tragedies’ states Dr. Siegler ‘but so are abortions. In this case, it may even be considered respectful to the aborted fetus to allow its tissues to help another person.’ Yet the point is being missed; the unborn baby is a victim of murder and not a willing donor as the UAGA would have us believe.

Under the same UAGA donor framework, the fetus is also described as a ‘gift’. How ironic, it is only after the unwanted child is aborted that it has value! In his article, Scott Rae mentions that "...the use of the term ‘gift’ is, to say the least, inappropriate when induced abortion is the means by which the gift is made available. If the fetus has no value, how can the tissue be legitimately called a gift and the fetus a donor?" (CRJ, Fall 1991 issue ‘Spare parts from the Unborn?’ by Scott Rae) By declaring the aborted fetus a ‘gift’, society validates the concept of the relative value of humans by determining the worth of the fetus in the womb as ‘not worthy’, yet prizing the aborted tissue as of greater significance!

A Matter of Consent

Because the UAGA considers fetal tissue transplants the same as any other organ transplants the matter of informed consent arises. The UAGA requires that the next of kin provide consent. The most likely candidate to grant this consent would be the mother.

If the fetus is not considered a human, why the need for consent in the first place? By requiring consent the UAGA openly contradicts the legal status that the fetus is not a child. By discounting the person-hood of the fetus, Scott Rae points out that the UAGA ‘...fails to recognize why the fetal tissue is so valuable: precisely because it is human.’ Under the UAGA, it is claimed that the tissue is from the mother’s body, however this is a not so, as the tissue is merely carried within her body. The fetal tissue has a distinct genotype, blood and gender and is in fact the body of another - the baby!

Even if this aspect is not clearly understood, it could be further argued that the mother has no right to give consent, even though the UAGA considers that she is the guardian of her offspring. In their book on ethics, John and Paul Feinberg state that the mother has ‘forfeited the office of guardian in resolving to destroy her fetus.’ (Ethics for a Brave New World, Crossway books 1993, page 89) If indeed the mother has the right to proxy consent - that is giving consent on behalf of another - it is expected that she would act in the best interests of the unborn child. However this confirms how absurd and morally outrageous this argument is, as the mother is also the one who initiates the abortion of her unborn child.

The Economic Drive of Abortion.

The world of economics runs on the basis of supply and demand. And this is perhaps the largest fear to approving fetal tissue research and transplants from elective aborted fetuses. While it is claimed that supply is sufficient to meet current demand - which is a tragedy in itself - what is to happen when researchers discover that the fetal tissue products can effectively treat a broader assortment of disease and illnesses? What happens when there is still not enough supply? While these questions may seem overstated, we should not underestimate the advances of medical technology or the moral corruption of modern society. Several proposals were brought to the National Institutes of Health Panel to protect babies from being procured for the motive of profit. Yet with an estimated annual income of six billion dollars, the potential for abuse in fetal tissue industry would be substantial, not to mention very difficult to regulate and enforce. ‘With the anticipated profitability of the industry once the technology can alleviate a larger number of diseases, there will be increasing pressures to "share the wealth" produced by these transplants.’ (Scott Rae, ibid)

Related to the supply of the fetus, is the supply of fresh and more mature fetuses. The timing of abortion becomes an important consideration to the researchers and medical community who benefit from a more matured and developed fetus. The majority of abortions procedures are performed between the sixth and eleventh weeks of pregnancy, however delaying until the fourteen to sixteenth weeks will yield fetal tissue that is usable in pancreatic transplants. Simply put, the older the fetus the more valuable! A subsequent concern of delaying the abortion procedures until the ‘ripe’ time period, is the emotional effects this will have for the mother. Aborting the unborn baby at four months old (as opposed to 6-11 weeks old) will compound the emotional impact on the mother resulting in a significant increase in post abortion trauma. Abortion, like all sin, has damaging consequences as revealed in Proverbs; "But he who sins against me injures himself" (Prov. 8:36a.) How distressing, the women who already suffer as a result of a erroneous decision are then sent on an emotional roller-coaster when ‘family planning counselors’ encourage a delay for a second trimester abortion!

Encouragement for Abortions

The greatest fear of pro-life supporters is that fetal tissue transplant will be used to justify abortion in the first place. This fear is echoed by Scott Rae as he is concerned that fetal tissue transplants from elective abortions ‘will serve to enhance abortions image...’ Scott even suggests that ‘donating tissue would offer relief from some guilt that many women feel when electing abortion...’ (Scott Rae, ibid) For most women, the intense anxiety surrounding the difficult decision to go through with an abortion causes many women to waver and usually it is just prior to the abortion, for some on the very day, that the final decision is made. This is why street-side counseling has been so effective for pro-life and pro-family organizations. However, with the potential of redeeming abortion by means of (financial) inducements and perceived merit of fetal tissue transplants, pro-family counselor’s fear that these incentives may push some women "over the line."

While American society recognizes the legality of abortion, and the right to choice, it has never seen fit to actively encourage it. This might well change if fetal tissue donations are recognized as a redeeming and humane quality! This may seem extreme, but already in 1987 a prominent national newspaper reported that people were not only willing but also eager to conceive for the sole purpose of donating the fetal tissue. (New York Times August 16, 1987.)

The Alternatives to Aborted Fetal Tissue

After reviewing the ethics presented by the mass media and medical communities as outlined in this article, the reader is lead to believe that fetal tissue research will only be possible using the supply of aborted fetus as a result of family planning. We are lead to believe that it is purely out of necessity as there are no apparent viable alternatives. Further, we are lead to believe that without using this tissue from elective abortions the medical technological development would be held up. However all this is misleading and founded on deception.

Originally the main focus of fetal tissue research was centred on cell culturing or cells lines. That is the process of subjecting the fetal tissue to certain conditions to encourage growth and reproduction of cells. Simply put, this process allows cells to be "manufactured" to suit a specific medical purpose. The origins of vaccines can be traced to tissue taken from a fetus of a miscarriage. The viruses were grown on this tissue and developed to the point that the vaccines are many generations removed from those cells produced from the original tissue. More recently a more advanced variation of this process was utilized for diabetes and has shown positive results in neuroblastoma (nerve related) cells for treating Parkinson’s disease. Another aspect that shows great possibilities is tissue cloning - which is a topic of discussion all by itself! Both of these technologies use fetal tissue that is strictly a result from miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies (i.e. when the fetus implants into the fallopian tube instead of the uterus.) While the decision to donate the fetuses as a result of these circumstances may still cause emotional hardship they do not as such present ethical concerns. In these difficult circumstances the babies were ‘unable’ to be born into this world and were not a result of being unwanted by this world, as in the case of elective abortions!


The intent of this article was to help you see through the warped moral views and ethical judgments that are espoused by the medical community and mass media. With the rise of elective abortions and the further degradation of the weak and frail through euthanasia, we must be on guard not to be desensitized by the misleading ethics presented to us. While there are those in the medical community who hold genuine (but misguided) concerns for the wellbeing of our society, others are willing to disguise their morbid agendas and covetous attempts to seek economic benefit from harvesting fetal tissue remains.

In many ways the issue of fetal tissue biotechnology goes beyond the killing of the unborn and the desire for financial gain. As such, the core of the problem for society is to whom do we, and our children belong. If we belong to nobody then life is of relative value and each man must do what he can to survive and to allow for a comfortable existence. Yet, as Christians we understand that this issue is not just one of moral or ethical arguments. As a community of believers we know that these are spiritual matters. While we may seek advancements in medical technology for the benefit of our society we must maintain that in the eyes of our Heavenly Father, life has absolute value. Humanistic ideals are selfish and self-serving. As for Christians, we do not live for ourselves but confess that we belong to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. ‘For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.’ (Romans 14:7-8)

Wayne Pleiter