Universities are complicit in the fetal-tissue scandal

While the practices of body-part harvesting at Planned Parenthood are horrific, the role of federally funded medical researchers at some of the country’s most prestigious universities and hospitals must also be investigated by Congress.

Earlier this month, congressional leaders conducting the investigation into fetal tissue research finally shifted their focus to the end-stage users in the selling of fetal body parts. Last week, in an attempt to determine exactly who is purchasing the fetal tissue, Representative Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, turned her attention away from the role abortion providers like Planned Parenthood play in the procurement of fetal tissue and announced that she would be issuing 17 subpoenas to medical supply companies and laboratories who provide fetal tissue to medical researchers.  

Congress realizes that without end-stage buyers—many of them funded by taxpayers through National Institutes of Health grants—there would likely be no fetal tissue selling scandal. And while the practices of infant organ and body-part harvesting at Planned Parenthood are horrific, the role of federally funded medical researchers at some of the country’s most prestigious universities and hospitals must also be investigated by Congress. 

Last year, US taxpayers provided $76 million for fetal tissue research—adding to the more than $400 million since 2011. The NIH lists grants in 2014 to hospital- and university-based fetal tissue research projects at institutions including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, UNC-Chapel Hill, UCLA, University of Colorado-Denver, NYU, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, UC San Diego, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, Temple, USC, Penn, West Virginia University, University of Nebraska, University of Texas, University of Miami, University of Rochester, Temple, Tufts, MIT, Washington State University, Cornell, George Washington University, University of Nebraska, Colorado State University, Drexel, Oregon, UMass, Columbia, and others. 

In addition to funding, the NIH requires protections for all research involving human subjects. During the informed consent process, the principle of respect for persons is applied by requiring that all subjects in a research project provide voluntary informed consent to participate. Federal law mandates this informed consent from mothers offering to donate fetal tissue following abortion, and prohibits abortion providers from profiting by the sale of fetal tissue. However, undercover videos produced by the pro-life group called the Center for Medical Progress indicate that Planned Parenthood personnel may be violating both these and additional federal laws, and altering abortion procedures to ensure that fetuses or body parts are extracted intact to increase their value to researchers. This has serious implications for university-based researchers who are required to comply with federal guidelines on research with human subjects.

NIH guidelines mandate that researchers minimize risk—including psychological risk, like anxiety, sadness, regret, and emotional distress—to their subjects. The NIH directives governing research involving human subjects emerged in an attempt to establish the basic principles that must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical, and legal concepts in the conduct of medical research following the Nuremberg Trial in 1947. The Nuremberg Code is the model for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) throughout the country, and has served as the first international standard for the conduct of research.

In July, Kyle Henley, a Colorado State University spokesman, claimed that the university “does not obtain or use full organs or body parts for research.” But documentation from StemExpress, a procurement company in the middle of the value chain involving the sale of fetal body parts, identifies by name an individual who works in CSU’s Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology Department as having purchased fetal liver tissue. Henley had to acknowledge that the university has obtained “very small” amounts of donated fetal tissue—one to three grams—“from legal, federally-regulated sources for a NIH-supported research project to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.” Later that month, CSU announced that it had suspended its further acquisition of fetal tissue from vendors implicated in the congressional investigation.  

While university-based researchers purchase fetal tissue from tissue procurement companies like StemExpress, they still have to be concerned about sourcing issues. All academic research is governed by IRBs. Although university-based researchers may try to claim that since their research specimens are not obtained from living individuals, they are not bound by federal guidelines regarding human-subject research, federal guidelines still mandate that all research involving human persons (including the mothers of the unborn) must “treat persons in an ethical manner…by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm.” While the fetus, of course, cannot give consent, the mother has every right to understand the risk she faces as abortion providers tailor their procedures to maximize profit.

Holly O’Donnell, a former StemExpress employee, disclosed in a Center for Medical Progress video that in many cases, mothers did not even give consent for the harvesting of their unborn child’s organs or body parts. She stated: “If there was a higher gestation, and the technicians needed it, there were times they would just take what they wanted, and these mothers don’t know and there’s no way they would know.”  Abortion provider Dr. Deborah Nucatola was caught on tape claiming that Planned Parenthood has no real “procurement guidelines” protecting consent and that IRBs require “too much work…. Too complicated…. It was a nightmare.”

Republican lawmakers have been courageous in continuing to pursue the investigation of the procurement and sale of fetal body parts. It is now time for university-based researchers to begin answering the hard questions about the origins of the specimens they receive from their tissue-procurement brokers. Allowing fetal tissue research to continue without extending the congressional investigation on issues of maternal consent, coercion, and risk to include university-based research would be a serious violation of the Nuremberg Code.

About Stephen Sammut 0 Articles

Stephen Sammut is professor of psychology and a research associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.