- Inconsistency, Increased Viability and Pre-Infants:A Legal Inquiry into the Donation of Aborted Foetuses in Stem Cell Research
In 1998, John Gearhart et al. reported that they had successfully created a pluripotent stem cell line from the primordial germ cells of aborted foetuses. These findings are relevant because scientists believe they can use pluripotent cell lines to introduce new cells into various parts of the body to reverse the progression of horrific diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. However, such research raises legal and ethical questions that must be evaluated. Although much of the debate regarding stem cell science has focused on research using human embryos, scientists have still expressed a keen interest in pursuing research on the germ cells of aborted foetuses. As recently as 2007, Gearhart et al. published a paper evaluating the maximum age at which a foetus could be used to yield successful pluripotent stem cell lines. While the study concluded that as a foetus develops, it is less likely to exhibit pluripotency, it did find that some foetuses up to 15 weeks old still had some capacity to create pluripotent cell lines. The methods used in the 2007 study reveal that foetuses up to 15 weeks old were used in his research, indicating that the older foetuses used were aborted several weeks into the second trimester.
While very few countries have direct regulations for the use of aborted foetuses in research, several nations that are regarded as leaders in the stem cell field consider that, as matter of law and policy, as a foetus develops, it has [End Page 65-] an "increased viability" for survival outside of the womb, and therefore, in a proportional sense, it has more moral weight as a nascent human life (that is, more than a human embryo), yet less than a born human being (Roe v. Wade). For the parameters of this article, the term "increased viability" refers to the idea that as a foetus develops, it has a stronger ability to survive outside the womb and, therefore, has a status increasingly equivalent to that of a born human. One such state is the Republic of Singapore, a nation at the centre of the world's biotechnological research and characterised as having a permissive approach with respect to the regulation of stem cell research (The Abortion Act of 1974 Penal Code, chapter 119, sections 312-316). The United States serves as another example of a country which, because of the peculiarities of the division between State and Federal law, may be considered to have a relatively liberal policy on stem cell research that also endorses the idea of increased viability. While many states have different laws and methods of approaching the use of foetuses in stem cell research, the rulings in Roe v.Wade and other cases specifically establish this notion of increased viability. This interesting connection between increased viability and a liberal stem cell research policy is the site at which several inconsistencies in these nations' laws begin to develop.
While there is no universally accepted moment at which a foetus becomes a "human life", Gearhart's and other stem cell researchers using foetal material have attracted relatively little ethical interest, even though they conduct research on a being that may have viability (i.e. able to maintain an independent existence), unlike human embryos used in other types of stem cell research. This has created an argument concerning alternatives to ethically contentious research. Besides stem cell research conducted with aborted foetuses (embryonic germ cell research), which extracts the primordial germ cells to create pluripotent stem lines, there are two other types of stem cell research. "Adult" stem cell research utilises somatic tissue to derive stem cells, yet it remains to be shown whether such cells can exhibit true pluripotency — the "gold-standard", meaning that a stem cell can differentiate into any functional cells (of particular interest are what have been called induced Pluripotent Stem — iPS — cells). It has long been held that only embryonic of germ stem cells are pluripotent, and therefore somatic stem cells only have the capability to differentiate into the types of cells from which they were extracted...