Let's Remember Why Fetal Tissue Research Matters

Planned Parenthood has become the battered scapegoat, bullied by a Senate that historically and profoundly excludes women. Lost in the politicking over this issue is the bravery and courage of women who agreed to be donors. Without them, the vaccines and medicines on which all Americans rely might not exist.
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Scientist pipetting samples into eppendorf tubes in research laboratory
Scientist pipetting samples into eppendorf tubes in research laboratory

Much to do has been made about the Planned Parenthood videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), claiming that the organization traffics fetal tissues and organs. The videos are shocking to Americans that have been protected from thinking about how vaccines that saved their lives and that of their children were developed.

Remember polio -- that highly contagious viral illness that causes paralysis? The Mayo Clinic describes the symptoms like this: "within a week.. signs and symptoms specific to paralytic polio appear, including: Loss of reflexes. Severe muscle aches or weakness. Loose and floppy limbs (flaccid paralysis), often worse on one side of the body."

Indeed, the disease wreaked so much havoc on the body, that the Centers for Disease Control urges caution before looking at the images. The disease devastated whole communities; parents were afraid to allow their children out of the house. Jonas Salk and other researchers desperately raced to find a cure. However, that vaccine was developed through the use of fetal kidney cells in research.

But that vaccine didn't simply save kids: "15-35 percent of adults may die because they become unable to breathe" if they contract polio. When faced with such odds, was it barbarian to conduct ethically sound research on donated fetal tissue?

Sadly, it turns out some Americans and our members of Congress are naïve about polio's cure being bound up in fetal tissue and fetal organ research. Similarly, rubella, chicken pox and shingles vaccines were also developed through the use of fetal tissue from terminated pregnancies.

So how many lives have been saved in the U.S. and around the globe through vaccination? "The CDC estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years."

For polio alone, 13,000-20,000 cases were reported each year in the United States. Many of those children died. It's estimated that over 1 million lives have been saved -- likely more just with polio.

And for chicken pox, the CDC reports that "before the vaccination program, about 4 million people in the United States got chickenpox, over 10,000 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died each year." Our leading disease control arm of the government estimates that 3.5 million cases are prevented each year because of this vaccine. Rubella?

I've researched these issues for the past 20 years, but don't take my word for it -- here's what our leading health care organization says: Check out page 352:

Modeling estimated that, among children born during 1994- 2013, vaccination will prevent an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes, at a net savings of $295 billion in direct costs and $1.38 trillion in total societal costs.

However, we need not look back 50 years ago to appreciate the hard choices made by Congress that have advanced human health. Even 20 years ago, members of pro-life Congress, including the Senate's Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell along with Senator Dan Coates, and Senator Chuck Grassley robustly advocated for fetal tissue research.

Why? It was strongly considered the next pathway for curing illnesses at the end of life, such as Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease. Senator McConnell along with other senior Republican leaders fought bitterly against George H.W. Bush in 1992 to pass a law that would permit the use of fetal tissue in human research. President Bush vetoed their legislation.

However, Republican leaders fought back and in 1993 along with support from Democrats enacted the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act. This law provides "reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, and quality control or storage of human fetal tissue."

So what is the controversy really about? Do members of Congress who fought for and passed legislation to use fetal tissue in human research now want to stop the research and shut down the labs attempting to find treatments or a cure for Alzheimer's Disease? Do Americans want that?

Or is it just about shutting down Planned Parenthood? After all, that organization isn't the only place where a woman can terminate a pregnancy nor where biobanks and researchers can acquire aborted fetal tissues.

There are a few things worth noting here.

The first is that this controversy exposes a serious knowledge gap. Americans want cures and to protect the health of their babies and children (as well they should), but don't know from where the cures come and when told, don't want to hear about it.

There's a yuck factor and that reflects a historical norm as well as our greater fear of medical science; Americans were opposed to life insurance (they called it death insurance); early on there was opposition to organ transplantation; and folks in the U.S. were even skittish about blood transfusions. This paranoia was taken to an extreme when Americans opposed integrating swimming pools for reasons of public health.

A second issue is the irresponsible politicking around fetal tissue research. Science and medical research are not the domains for snappy sound bites, careless analogies, and reckless political posturing -- after all lives are at stake. These are serious, hard choices that have been made with bipartisan support to promote human tissue research and fetal tissue research in particular.

A third concern is that we have a choice -- continue to save lives through human tissue research or shut it all down. But let's not cherry pick by singling out one group; shut them all down if this is what Congress and the American public are really willing to risk. Let's have a serious conversation about that rather than pretending that there aren't serious collateral costs associated with ending fetal tissue research.

Indeed, where was the backbone among members of Congress who quaked in the face of propaganda videos, forgetting their own commitments to protecting the health and safety of babies, children and adults? Shame on them for compromising their integrity in the light of sophomoric videos by a fringe organization.

Fourth, altruism is absolutely illusory in the human tissue domain and nefarious stealing of tissue or obtaining it through shady means dominates the industry. For years, I have attempted to call attention to this. Ironically, members of Congress are condemning Planned Parenthood for following the rules they established. The organization seeks informed consent, transfers tissue at cost, and tries to work with organizations attempting to find cures for deadly diseases.

And who is to bear the cost of harvesting, securing, and transferring the tissue that Congress wants researchers to use? If anything, by forcing Planned Parenthood out of this domain will likely spur black market tissue selling rather than more transparent transactions.

There are more that 1.5 million allograft surgeries that take place each year in the U.S. and these tissues aren't free. The bone industry alone makes more than $2 billion per year -- and that doesn't account for corneas, heart valves, organs, skin -- all of which have price tags that make Planned Parenthood look like the only altruistic participant in the tissue supply chain.

In fact, human tissue harvesting, transferring, research, destruction, cloning and manipulation to create cell lines are a multi-billion dollar per year industry in the U.S. and members of Congress are fully aware, because it has passed laws to spur technological growth.

These companies are so deeply embedded in the U.S. economy that they have shareholders, trade on stock exchanges, and boldly reference their profitability. Congress has received reports from internal agencies that make clear private, for profit tissue banks don't want to be interfered with by meddlesome patients. While Planned Parenthood seeks the consent of their donors, frequently do not and engage in scandalous practices. More can be found about that here, here, here, here, and here.

Who are those purchasing human tissues? Johnson and Johnson, L'Oreal and so many more. Going after Planned Parenthood may serve to chill one of the few ethical providers of human tissues.

Finally, Planned Parenthood has become the battered scapegoat, bullied and threatened by a Senate that historically and profoundly excludes women. Of the U.S. Senate, only 20 percent are women -- one of the lowest ratios in the developed world. This is a hard, but true reality that dominates the status quo in U.S. politics. Importantly, these profound disparities matters more and more in policy debates.

Consider that presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush stated recently, "I'm not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women's health programs."

Some fellow republicans have attacked him for this, but that too is simply political sport, because the very legislators attacking the former GOP governor voted this week to defund Planned Parenthood. In this case, the emperors have no clothes: Pro-life members of Congress and even those who care about reproductive equality supported fetal tissue research and then forgot about it.

Lost in the politicking over this issue is the bravery and courage of women who agreed to be donors in the wake of their personal tragedies. Without them, the vaccines and medicines on which all Americans rely might not exist.

But here's where, politically, both Republicans and Democrats have missed the mark in attacking Planned Parenthood: That organization's role in human tissue harvest and transfer is scant -- absolutely minuscule and insignificant in a male-dominated industry that grabs tissue when and where it can. What is Congress willing to do about that?

Michele Goodwin, author of Black Markets: The Supply and Demand of Human Body Parts and The Global Body Market: Altruism's Limits recently joined the Orange County Affiliate of Planned Parenthood.

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