The hidden ethics battle in the Planned Parenthood fetal tissue scandal

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Is a fetus a person? Underlying the furor over Planned Parenthood sending aborted fetal tissue to science for research is an ethical battle over the moral status of the fetus. RNS photo via Wikimedia.

Is a fetus a person? Underlying the furor over Planned Parenthood sending aborted fetal tissue to science for research is an ethical battle over the moral status of the fetus. RNS photo via Wikimedia.

(RNS) In a flood of outrage over Planned Parenthood videos — executives caught talking callously about supplying fetal tissue for medical research — some key points have washed out of attention, ethics experts say.

  • The use of fetal tissue in medical research is legal — and scientifically valuable.
  • It’s taxpayer-funded, to the tune of $76 million last year, and Planned Parenthood isn’t the only provider.
  • Done with dignity, it can be ethical, too, both religious and secular experts say.

But they also say there may be an unresolvable impasse in the public response: Can or should the leading provider of women’s health care be shut down in a showdown over the moral status of embryonic and fetal life?

“You can’t make this fundamental clash of perspectives go away,” said Tom Beauchamp, Georgetown University professor of philosophy, senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and co-author of one of the foundational texts in the field, “Principles of Biomedical Ethics.”


READ: On Planned Parenthood controversy, The New York Times swings and whiffs


“If you think that, never mind the stage of development from embryo to fetus, this is a human life, a person, and any intervention is an act of killing, it’s an unforgivable crime because a fetus has full moral status including, at the very least, the right not to be killed.”

Neither can an embryo or a section of tissue give informed consent to be used for research — a fundamental ethical requirement, said Beauchamp.

“But if you don’t see this embryo or tissue — whether from an abortion or a miscarriage — as having a moral status, you don’t see the issue of giving consent for its use in research. It’s not a person to you,” he said. “There is no neutral concept of personhood. Everyone picks their starting point.”

The common ground, however, may come if significant treatment or cures are found with fetal tissue research by scientists anywhere in the world. “Just wait until people need these cures. They won’t say no,” said Beauchamp.

The National Institutes of Health budgeted $76 million for fetal tissue research in 2014 and roughly the same amount for 2015 and for 2016, according to The Washington Post. Grant recipients included scientists at a private company looking at a condition that causes enlarged spleens, HIV researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and scientists studying neurodevelopmental disorders at Stanford University. Time magazine reported that fetal tissue has contributed to vaccines for polio, rubella and chicken pox.


READ: Science vs. religion? There’s actually more of a three-way split 


There’s a 25-year history of such research. In 1990, the Journal of the American Medical Association outlined how fetal tissue “has the potential to save lives.” The journal said such tissue is “derived from elective abortions” and must be used in “a morally acceptable manner” that distinctly separates the decision to have an abortion from consent to donate the resulting tissue.

Federal regulations specify there can be “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

No guidelines or codes can suffice for any use of fetuses killed in an elective abortion, said Ron Hamel, who recently retired as senior ethicist for the Catholic Health Association.

“The church would see what Planned Parenthood is doing as a double indignity to human life. There is both the willing destruction of a life and the sale of the fetal tissue,” Hamel said.

He pointed out that the sale price — which was strictly a reimbursement to cover costs, according to a letter from Planned Parenthood to Congress — is irrelevant. Catholic doctrine forbids intentionally killing an embryo or fetus.

But this does not mean the Catholic Church would object to all such research. It all depends on the source.

For example, Hamel said it is ethical at a Catholic health facility for parents to consent to donate remains of a miscarried fetus or an “indirect abortion” — when a fetus is unavoidably harmed during essential treatment to the mother for a life-threatening condition.

Still, it is essential that “fetuses, even dead fetuses, need to be treated with respect and dignity” at every stage, including burial of the remains after research is completed, said Hamel.

Ethicist Laurie Zoloth, former president of the American Academy of Religion, watched both Planned Parenthood videos at length and was horrified by the “cavalier” way that such a fraught issue was discussed.


READ: The religious politics of abortion are more nuanced than we think (ANALYSIS)


Beyond their crude conversations, the Planned Parenthood executives may have spotlighted gaps in ethical integrity that alarmed Zoloth, who holds dual professorships at Northwestern University, one in medical humanities and bioethics at the medical school and another in religious studies.

Were women able to give informed consent based on full information — including the specifics of the procedure and that tissue donated would be used for medical research? Did Planned Parenthood alter its procedures in order to obtain tissue, without making this clear to the client?

“These are all part of clear, transparent informed consent for any surgery and we care a lot about consent,” she said.

(RNS2-jan22) Pew Research Center graphic depicting consistent support for maintaining Roe v. Wade over the past 20 years.  For use with RNS-ABORTION-BELIEFS, transmitted on January 22, 2013, RNS graphic courtesy the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, © 2013, Pew Research Center. http://www.pewforum.org/.

(RNS2-jan22) Pew Research Center graphic depicting consistent support for maintaining Roe v. Wade over the past 20 years. RNS graphic courtesy of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, © 2013, Pew Research Center

However, Zoloth also sees the Planned Parenthood videos in the context of the anti-abortion rights activists’ campaign to shut the agency down, despite “substantial public consensus that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” It’s a view she personally shares, coming from a branch of Jewish tradition that permits abortion “under very specific conditions” and the donation of tissue for research.

Like the New York Times editorial writers, who called out lawmakers for “promoting their own anti-choice agenda” and said they are “rewarding deception and putting women’s health and their constitutionally protected rights at risk,” Zoloth does not want to see Planned Parenthood shut down. 

Planned Parenthood, which serves one in five U.S. women with reproductive health care, family planning and health screenings, including mammograms, is “a necessary place for medical care for millions of women,” Zoloth said.

To survive the crisis, Planned Parenthood will need to follow the same path of repentance every religion outlines — apologize, reform, do better. 

“They need to start with a public apology,” said Zoloth. They need to explain exactly what their costs are and give a full accounting of them. There should be some sanctions toward the doctors who spoke on tape. There needs to be clear revision to “never ever” modify a medical procedure. There may be sanctions for the two doctors on the videos. And everyone must be trained to be aware of the moral gravity of their actions.  

“If all those things are done, and if there is a true need for the tissue, it is better to donate it than to throw it away,”  said Zoloth, who wants to move the public debate to a different framework.

She said: “I wish all those people raising a furor would take all that passion and enthusiasm for the welfare of babies and address it to birth control, nutrition and early childhood education. If you really want to make the world safer and better for women and children, I have a lot of things on my list.”

LM/MG END GROSSMAN

  • Bill

    Where to start?
    Fetal tissue lines that have been around for decades provided the vaccines.
    There are no significant “cures” from fetal tissue, in spite of millions of dollars and the science of wishful thinking.
    Planned Parenthood refers for mammograms, like any family doctor does. They do not perform mammograms.
    The people opposed to abortion are also involved in caring for preganant women, facilitation adoption, caring for children and those other things that they are accused of ignoring.

    I’ll let others add to the list—

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  • Bernardo

    And all preventable by practicing safe sex i.e. by following the directions on the packages of the Pill and condom or better yet using safer, more reliable birth control methods like abstinence, “hand jiving”, implants, IUDs, tubular ligation or vasectomies.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Eventually Planned Parenthood will reach the goal that was Margaret Sanger’s fondest wish–the extermination of racial minorities in the U.S.
    Funny how liberals passionately defend PP and fund and fund it in spite of its racist origins. Why aren’t those liberals who are chasing down every vestige of our past they don’t like not going after PP??? And, unlike the Confederate flag, still doing widespread killing. A liittle Dem Party duplicity here????.

  • Larry

    That old horsepucky again. As if consenting to abortion amounted to genocide. The entire Margret Sanger/black genocide myth was created by quotemining and outright lies. Like most anti-abortion support.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2015/07/is-abortion-an-african-american-genocide-the-problem-with-conservatives-citing-margaret-sanger.html

    “No one forces women of color to have abortions. In fact, Planned Parenthood personnel are required to make sure that women who come to their facility for abortions are doing so through their own free will. When conservatives argue abortion is a plan dreamed up by Margaret Sanger to carry out genocide against African Americans, and that that is why higher rates of African American women have abortions, they are suggesting that black women should not have the ability to freely make their own reproductive choices.

    Who is trying to invalidate African Americans’ agency now?”

  • Larry

    “There is no neutral concept of personhood. Everyone picks their starting point.””

    But only one really makes sense, birth. At that point one is an autonomous being capable of independent existence. Something which can never be true of a fetus. Personhood for a fetus is ridiculous. The fetus can’t exercise existence without her. Therefore its personhood is an irrelevance. It simply means denying personhood for the mother. Anti-abortion types think a fetus is a person but a woman is not.

    “To survive the crisis, Planned Parenthood will need to follow the same path of repentance every religion outlines — apologize, reform, do better. ”

    Or better yet, come out swinging against obvious fabrications and defamation used to attack their organization and its staff. Not giving in to the fictions and fabrications of those who seek to ban abortions by any means necessary, fair or foul.

  • Greg1

    It really boils down to ethics, and morality. I don’t see the difference between hiring someone to “eliminate” a husband/wife/family member, or hiring a so-called “doctor” to “eliminate” the youngest family member who is still in the womb. The only difference is age.

  • Nate

    I like how this article is so self defeating. 25 years of fetal tissue collection, no cures, none imminent. Just more empty dead end promises to salve the wound abortion leaves. You know why fetal research is such big business? Because it’s big business.

  • Goran

    “It really boils down to ethics, and morality”, niether of which can be found in the bible without direct contradiction in that same book. So just don’t go looking there for them.

  • e g stafford

    You wrote: “But only one really makes sense, birth. At that point one is an autonomous being capable of independent existence.” Not true – no one is autonomous in modern society, and certainly no one under the age of about 7 could survive without support from others. Using autonomy to define personhood is wrong.

  • Larry

    Talk about scorched earth tactics! You deny anyone is an autonomous being. They are all somehow tethered to others the same way a fetus is physically tethered to its mother. You are getting ridiculous in denial tactics.

    “certainly no one under the age of about 7 could survive without support from others”

    Way to miss the point. The fact that they can survive with support from individuals besides the mother is the key factor here. At no point does a born person’s life depend on the bodily functionality of a specific person like a fetus/ A fetus can only survive due to the mother’s physical body supporting them at the cost of her own functions. Different from any born human being.

    The fact that I have to explain to you what is clearly obvious to anyone who looks at the situation in an honest, reasonable fashion shows how irrational the opposing POV really is.

    If God wanted to preclude abortion he would have given a platypus sapience. Anyone can care for an egg. 🙂

  • Moe

    Larry, Larry, Larry.

    “The fact that I have to explain to you what is clearly obvious to anyone who looks at the situation in an honest, reasonable fashion shows how irrational the opposing POV really is.”

    Propaganda is a powerful tool and you are evidence that it works.

    The keyword here is mother–that is what every pregnant woman is called. That is the defining word. That is the end of your argument. That is the issue. She is the mother of a child–period.

    Referring to any stage in that child’s development as inconsequential to human life is irrational.

    Perhaps you should look to the founder of NARAL to check your facts.
    His name is Dr. Bernard Nathanson and his documentaries are called Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason–both available on YouTube.

    You may want to read up on the lie about back alley abortions . Abortions/mercy killings were performed in all hospitals in the 1960’s on thalidomide and german measles babies. Only Sherry Finkbine’s fame…

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