Fetal tissue research goes forward

January 17, 1994

On the third day of his presidency, President Clinton demonstrated what elections are all about. He signed orders last January reversing several controversial, abortion-related policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

One of them was a ban on federal funding of medical research making use of tissue from aborted fetuses. That policy severely hampered research that has shown tantalizing promise for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, diabetes and leukemia.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced its first grant for fetal tissue research in five years, $4.5 million to study the effects of implanting fetal tissue into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease. That is good news for Parkinson's patients and their families, who must cope with the effects of a progressive brain disorder that gradually robs healthy people of their ability to function. It is even better news for science, since it indicates a reversal of policies that allowed ideology to shut down promising avenues of research.

The grant, like the lifting of the ban last year, angers anti-abortion activists who warn that the research could actually encourage women to conceive babies and seek abortions for research purposes. Those claims are unwarranted, as are warnings that the research will encourage large numbers of late-term abortions. Fetal tissue researchers use the tissue from first-trimester abortions, not more developed fetuses.

Fetal tissue research, like any other kind of medical research, should meet high ethical standards. The needs of researchers should not influence how or when an abortion takes place; the only relevant factor in all such decisions should be the health of the woman having the abortion. Moreover, care should be taken to test any tissue for the AIDS virus. But if the virus is detected, should the woman be told? There should be policies in place to answer these questions.

Banning the federal government from fetal tissue research left the field to privately funded operators, with no public oversight. It is worth noting that federal involvement in this kind of research helps to ensure broader accountability and encourage higher standards.

The ban on fetal tissue research not only slowed progress toward improving outcomes for people suffering from Parkinson's and other diseases, but also represented an unwarranted intrusion of ideology on science. The fetal tissue saga stands as an example of how such intrusions almost always end up doing far more harm than good.

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