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  • Fetal Tissue Research
  • Mary Carrington Coutts (bio)

I. Introduction

The use of tissue from fetal remains for transplantation and biomedical research has become a controversial issue in recent years, involving scientists, doctors, patients, and the federal government. Fetal tissue is potentially useful in a wide range of treatments for a number of serious diseases, some of them affecting millions of people. Despite the promise, transplantation research using fetal tissue from induced abortion slowed dramatically in the U.S. in 1988, when a moratorium was declared on federal funding for such research involving humans. That moratorium was lifted by President Clinton on January 21, 1993. Though the future of fetal tissue transplantation research is brighter, public debate on the issue is likely to continue, exacerbated by the "acrimonious abortion debate" (VI, Post 1991, p. 14).

Using fetal tissue in biomedical research and in transplantation is not a new practice. As early as 1928 unsuccessful attempts were made to transplant fetal pancreas cells into diabetics (VII, Fichera 1928). Fetal tissue was used effectively in biomedical research during the 1950s, and was instrumental in the culture of the polio virus, which led to the development of the polio vaccine. Fetal tissue cultures were also essential in the development of the rubella vaccine, and continue to be used in virology research. Transplantation of fetal thymus cells into patients with DiGeorge Syndrome has been recognized as effective therapy since the late 1960s.

Many of the therapeutic applications involving fetal tissue are still experimental, so it is difficult to pinpoint fetal tissue transplantation's therapeutic potential. One promising application is the transplantation of human fetal brain cells into the substantia nigra of patients with Parkinson's disease to restore motor function. Fetal neural transplants have also shown promise for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord and other neural tissue injuries, and possibly some forms of cortical blindness. Fetal liver cells may be useful for treatment of some kinds of bone marrow disease seen in leukemia and aplastic anemia patients. [End Page 81] Fetal tissue transplantation may also help those suffering from blood clotting disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, and hemophilia. Fetal pancreatic tissue has potential applications in the treatment of diabetes, especially juvenile onset diabetes. Human gene therapy may also employ embryonic and early fetal cells.

The Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota reports that more than 1,000 patients have received transplanted fetal tissue worldwide. Countries where fetal tissue transplantation has occurred include: Australia, Canada, China, the Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly the U.S.S.R.), Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Yugoslavia (IV, Vawter 1992, p. 2; I, Spain 1988; VII, Reinikainen 1989).

Fetal tissue has unique characteristics that make it especially valuable in some treatments. Fetal cells develop much faster than adult cells, hastening the therapeutic effect—a potentially significant benefit for gravely ill patients. They are also less likely to be rejected by transplant recipients because they are less antigenic than adult cells. This reduces the need for the exact tissue matches that can be so difficult to obtain. Fetal tissue is also easier to culture and proliferates more readily than comparable adult tissue. Furthermore, fetal tissue is in greater supply, due to the number of elective abortions.

Questions about the use of fetuses and fetal tissue in biomedical research were raised in the United States in the early 1970s. Between 1969 and 1973, all 50 states enacted the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, allowing for the donation of all or part of the body of a dead fetus for research or therapeutic research. Prospects for the use of fetal tissue increased after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. As the availability of fetal tissue increased so did the concern over the potential for controversial research on living, soon-to-be-aborted fetuses, and anxiety over maltreatment of dead abortuses. Vivid examples include Geoffrey Chamberlain's 1968 report of an experiment on a fetus of 26 weeks gestational age. Delivered by hysterotomy from a 14-year-old patient, the fetus was attached to an "artificial placenta" and kept alive for more than...