The GOP Case Against Stem Cell Research

Republican candidates convened last night for the first debates of the 2016 campaign. The presidential hopefuls disagreed on all but one topic: the controversy over the recent release of an undercover video with Planned Parenthood.
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Republican candidates convened last night for the first debates of the 2016 campaign. The presidential hopefuls disagreed on every topic they faced -- immigration, health care, foreign policy, gay rights, the economy -- all but one, that is. Their differences of opinion disappeared each time they were asked about the controversy over the recent release of an undercover video with Planned Parenthood. On the issue raised by that edited film clip, the candidates came together in a rare consensus.

All 17 who appeared in last night's debates -- from Ted Cruz to Carly Fiorina -- staunchly opposed research that uses tissue cells from aborted or miscarried fetuses. The candidates unanimously called for Congress to end its support of Planned Parenthood over its contribution to that research, with some like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal joining party leaders who would force a government shutdown over that issue. This, after Senate Republicans earlier this week failed to clear a procedural vote to defund.

The case for fetal tissue research is straightforward: it improves health and saves lives. In fact, it's led to some of the most profound medical breakthroughs of the modern era. This research has been vital to the development of childhood vaccines for polio, rubella, and shingles, for example, as well as therapies that save millions of premature babies born with underdeveloped lungs and other problems. And it's still being used to find cures not only for diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and heart disease that affect the elderly, but also newborn abnormalities of the brain, heart, and kidney.

Yet GOP presidential hopefuls have condemned fetal tissue research in what sounds like a uniform objection. A closer look at their remarks reveals what are actually four different kinds of reasons about what exactly makes this research wrong. Republican candidates express the case against fetal tissue research in terms that might be called fetal welfare, child welfare, slippery slopes, and respect for life. None of these four concerns is ultimately persuasive, but each deserves to be taken seriously.

Fetal Welfare

Fetal welfare is about preserving unborn life from destruction. This is the concern voiced last night by candidates including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and even former New York Gov. George Pataki, who unlike the other two accepts the constitutional right to abortion. Pataki proposed "defund[ing] Planned Parenthood" among other limits on fetal tissue research because "we have the right to protect" human "life inside the womb," "and I think we should protect [it]." The Supreme Court has since Roe v. Wade held that, while fetuses are not constitutional persons with rights of their own, the state still has a legitimate interest in protecting "the life of the fetus that may become a child."

This concern for fetal welfare can't say what's wrong with medical research that uses tissue cells from fetuses that are no longer alive. That's because the alternative to fetal tissue's being used for research isn't to "become a child," but to be thrown away. Accordingly, this research doesn't destroy any fetuses, and preventing it wouldn't save any. Women and doctors are already forbidden from being paid to use fetal tissue. That separates the decision to terminate a pregnancy from any research that it might later contribute to. So there's no "maximiz[ing] the value of body parts," as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie claimed, to "sell on the open market for profit."

Child Welfare

Another reason the candidates gave last night to ban research is child welfare. This is a concern about promoting and protecting the health of newborn babies who are delivered alive. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham asked "Americans to stand up and stop harvesting organs from little babies," for example, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said future generations will "call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies." Child welfare is a powerful cause. It entitles newborns, as vulnerable citizens with constitutional rights of their own, to special protection against conduct that harmed them before they were born.

But fetal tissue research never involves living fetuses, let alone born children. So the concern about child welfare is misplaced. To the contrary, a major goal of research on fetal tissue is to improve newborn health. Take one example: it used to be that premature babies died at high rates because we didn't know how to help their immature lungs get enough air to survive. Now when babies are born early, doctors apply a powerful therapy called Surfactant whose development in the 1980s was made possible by research on fetal tissue.

Slippery Slopes

Other candidates, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, worry that fetal tissue research will open the door to dehumanizing institutions. Sen. Paul told The Washington Post shortly before the debates that allowing fetal tissue research would lead to "factories where you'd grow babies for their body parts." Never mind that he neglected to explain what chain of inferences might lead stem cell research to slide into fetus farming or infanticide. Such prospects are indeed chilling.

But restricting stem cell research is a poor way to prevent that abuse. A far better strategy is to enact laws designed to stave off those intolerable practices. We can easily draw lines as we do in other areas of law and policy to distinguish uses for one purpose but not another. That way we need not needlessly thwart the enormous promise that fetal tissue research holds for human health. Which leads us to the final concern that GOP presidential seekers have raised.

Respect for Life

A number of Republican candidates in the debates, from businessman Donald Trump to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, suggested that what's wrong with fetal tissue research is that it expresses disrespect for human life. "I believe that we should have a culture of life," as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush put it, reminding voters that "we ended partial birth abortion" and "were the first state to do a 'choose life' license plate." The Supreme Court has indeed held that government can regulate in ways designed to promote respect for the unborn, even if doing so saves none. It's easy to understand how it expresses respect for human life, for example, to restrict the use of fetal tissue for trivial purposes like producing cosmetics, or even insufficiently worthy reasons like teaching high school biology.

But how does it respect human life to bar the use of non-living fetuses for noble purposes like treating and curing devastating diseases and disabilities? It'd be one thing if animal research or other kinds of stem cells were an adequate substitute for fetal tissue research. They're not. Animal models aren't able to solve the uniquely human biology behind developmental disorders and brain diseases like schizophrenia and autism. By comparison to fetal tissue, adult human cells are more susceptible to rejection and less able to proliferate and adapt. And embryos have generated far fewer cell types. That otherwise discarded fetal issue is needed to save lives and improve health makes it hard to see how curtailing that research respects life.

The storm generated by the Planned Parenthood video opened a strategic front in the battle to roll back abortion rights during election season. Reviewed on the merits, however, none of the GOP candidates' objections to fetal tissue research can justify sacrificing its enormous benefits.

Dov Fox is a law professor at the University of San Diego and most recently author of Race Sorting in Family Formation and The State's Interest in Potential Life.

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