Planned Parenthood, Fetal Tissue and the Meaning of Compassion

WASHINGTON - MAY 7:  (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES)  U.S. President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy greeting the press at the North Por
WASHINGTON - MAY 7: (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES) U.S. President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy greeting the press at the North Portico of the White House May 7, 1981 in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

The release of heavily edited, highly deceptive videos by anti-abortion propagandists has put fetal tissue and the medical research conducted using it back in the news. It will surely become a campaign issue, at least on the Republican side. The cast of GOP hopefuls are already competing with each other with promises of how they will defund, pillory, and otherwise attack Planned Parenthood.

As this story has unfolded I have been thinking about the Reagans, Ron and Nancy.

Medical research involving fetal tissue has been going on at least since the 1930s, and like it or not it has contributed to important breakthroughs that have improved all of our lives. But it was President Ronald Reagan who first turned an important scientific pursuit into a political issue (masquerading as a moral crusade).

In his second term Reagan imposed a moratorium on federal funding for research that utilized fetal tissue because such tissue came from terminated fetuses. He, and others who supported his decision, made truly insulting assertions that medical research created a "market" for fetal tissue and thus would encourage women to 1) get pregnant in order to 2) have an abortion so that they could 3) sell the fetal tissue to make money. Revolting as such sentiments are, they are certainly revealing of the contempt Reagan and others had for women.

As the controversy around the moratorium swirled, a 21-member ethics panel was appointed by Reagan's own Assistant Secretary of Health to consider the question of research using fetal tissue. In September 1988, they voted 19-0 with 2 abstentions that such research was indeed ethical and valuable.

Reagan was at the end of his presidency at this point, and so the question was left to his successor. After he took office, George H. W. Bush, once a pro-choice advocate, continued his craven capitulation to the religious right and extended the funding ban. Finally, Bill Clinton restored the funding with an executive order in 1993.

In 1998 scientists figured out how to extract stem cells from human embryos. Like fetal tissue, these embryonic stem cells have extraordinary potential to treat all sorts of common and crushing diseases: diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to name just three.

And that last is where Nancy Reagan comes in.

When he became president, George W. Bush, who, unlike his father, really is a member of the Christian right, severely restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He even vetoed several bills from the Republican-controlled Congress to loosen those restrictions.

By that time it was public knowledge that Ronald Reagan was lost in the fog of Alzheimer's disease (in fact, he seems to have been exhibiting symptoms in his second term). So in 2004, desperate for the hope that medical research can provide, Nancy went to Capitol Hill to lobby for, yes, stem cell research. She even wrote a (public) letter to Bush begging him to allow stem cell research to go forward.

It's easy, and not incorrect, to see this as simple straightforward hypocrisy. Ban funding for the research! Except if I or a member of my family needs it! And notice that those who denounce this research are not refusing the vaccines and other treatments the research has made possible.

But this politicization of scientific research also serves as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences. Poor Nancy, she didn't seem to recognize that the husband she was now pleading for had created this problem in the first place by turning medical research into an arena for right-wing politics. The cure you are thwarting with your political pandering may someday be your own, or your child's or your husband's.

Ironically, there may well be unintended consequences too for the fake exposé released by anti-abortion zealot David Daleiden. The video was intended to discredit Planned Parenthood, and it stands as only the latest in a long line of conservative attacks on this women's health provider. But in drawing attention to fetal tissue, the video has given researchers and others the opportunity to say out loud just how important -- and successful -- this research is. Indeed, an editorial in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine minced no words reminding us that society has an ethical responsibility to use this "precious resource to find new preventive and therapeutic interventions for devastating diseases."

It also reminds us of the deeply personal choice that is at the heart of reproductive freedom. The women who choose to donate fetal tissue to medical science are doing something benevolent, caring, and profound, in difficult circumstances. Far more than the shrill screamers rushing to defund Planned Parenthood, they understand what compassion means. And for that they deserve our thanks.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.