It has been several years since the height of the stem-cell controversy, where every day debate raged over the destruction of embryos for embryonic stem cells. These human embryos, conceived in a lab by the hundreds of thousands, are only days old but hold inside a mass of stem cells that scientists told us held the key to regenerative medicine.
These little lives, no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence, were deemed disposable, easily sacrificed to advance medical treatments for everything from paralysis to Parkinson’s.
In the great stem-cells wars, we learned that embryonic stem cells are immature and unwieldy, causing tumors in animal models. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are more stable — and therefore safer for treating patients. As the years have passed, we have heard more and more about adult stem-cell successes and less and less about the failure of embryonic stem cells to become the cure-all many promised.
But the stem-cell wars are far from over. There is a third designation of stem cells that is little known but is gaining momentum: the fetal stem cell. Human beings are called embryos for the first eight weeks after fertilization. After that, we enter the fetal stage, which is from nine weeks post-fertilization until birth. Fetal stem cells are stem cells harvested during the fetal stage of development.
Fetal stem cells, often procured from elective abortions, are disingenuously classified as “adult” stem cells simply because they do not come from embryos. Needless to say, this creates great confusion, even causing pro-lifers to tout “adult” stem-cell successes when the stem cells originally came from an aborted fetus.
Hockey legend Gordie Howe was in the headlines this year for his remarkable recovery from a stroke after a stem-cell treatment in Tijuana, Mexico. Former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback John Brodie also received the same treatment. Initially, the reports indicated that Howe and Brodie were treated with “adult” stem cells. Pro-life news feeds lit up with the news.
But enterprising USA Today sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer revealed last month that the treatment Howe and Brodie received from Stemedica Cell Technologies included stem cells derived from an aborted fetus.
Stemedica, a San Diego company that provides the stem-cell treatment to clinics like the one in Mexico, mixes meshenchymal stem cells from an adult donor with neural stem cells from a 14-week to 16-week-old aborted fetus. Stemedica asserts that fetal stem cells are really “adult” stem cells because fetal stem cells are more adult in nature than embryonic stem cells.
This verbal sleight of hand conveniently fails to alert the public to the source of Stemedica’s neural stem cells, and the company is not eager to clarify. Stemedica CEO Maynard Howe, who is no relation to Gordie, confessed, “We don’t use the word ‘fetal’ too much. We just don’t want to get people confused about what it is. They’re really considered, legally, adult stem cells, even if they’re fetal-derived.”
Stemedica’s silence is working. The Detroit News reported that one man contacted Stemedica to see if his mother could receive the same treatment as Howe. Bill Van Horn was told that it would cost more than $30,000. Howe was given the treatment at no cost. Because of the reports that Howe was treated with “adult” stem cells, Van Horn was unaware that part of Stemedica’s treatment came from an aborted fetus. The price tag proved to be over Van Horn’s budget, but if his mother had been able to afford it, Van Horn said he probably would not have asked about the source of the stem cells.
Unfortunately, Stemedica is not the only stem-cell company that is seeking to profit from tissue harvested after an elective abortion. Neuralstem in Maryland and StemCells Inc. in California both have stem-cell lines that came from aborted fetuses.
Gordie Howe and his family did know that he was being treated with stem cells obtained from an abortion. Murray Howe, Gordie’s son, who is also a doctor, argued, like many before him, that since the baby was going to die in abortion anyway, it is morally permissible to use the tissues for a good purpose. Murray Howe told USA Today, “It’s great that this tissue can be used for something that can help mankind. To me, this is only positive — using the cells to help people.”
It is a seductive argument, but it is utterly flawed. The morality of fetal stem-cell use is analogous to that of organ donation. The truth is that we are all “going to die anyway.” It is not ethical to intentionally and prematurely end a person’s life and then take the organs for donation. Using fetal stem cells from aborted fetuses is akin to using organs from death-row inmates or victims of euthanasia. By contrast, if a patient died of natural causes or a traumatic event, then it is morally permissible to use their organs for the benefit of others.
But if a human being is intentionally destroyed to harvest tissue, then the tissue is morally tainted. If these fetal stem cells had come from a natural miscarriage, it would be acceptable for parents to donate these cells to research.
Instead, companies like Stemedica have chosen to use stem cells procured from the intentional ending of an innocent life. This morally taints their treatments and brings controversy to what could be potentially life-saving medicine. It also sets a chilling precedent.
Using the tissues of aborted babies for the “greater good” is a very slippery slope. Another California company, Ganogen Inc., is trying to end the shortage of organs for transplant. Their solution is horrifying. Ganogen takes organs from aborted fetuses and transplants them into rats so that the organs can continue to grow to a size where they can be transplanted back into humans. The company recently announced that it has been successful growing kidneys from an aborted baby inside a rat for several months. On its website, Ganogen argues that medical research has been using human fetal cells for decades, and the reader is to infer that Ganogen’s research is no different.
Except that it is different. Ganogen’s approach is a step beyond. As repugnant as fetal stem-cell treatments are, depending on the viability of the stem-cell line harvested, one abortion could produce treatments for many patients. The fetal stem-cell line can continue to propagate, with no new abortions, to keep it going. This is not true for Ganogen’s approach. Each abortion can only supply a limited number of organs. For Ganogen to meet its goal of ending the donor shortage, there will have to be a lot more abortions.
Fortunately, in the United States impregnating a woman with the intent to harvest fetal tissue is illegal. But the law does not prohibit women who are already procuring abortions to donate their dead babies to research.
Full disclosure is needed. We cannot let Stemedica and other companies that seek to profit off the bodies of the innocent hide where they get their “raw materials.” If we do not protest loudly to fetal stem-cell research, then the market for aborted babies parts will surely grow. If Ganogen has its way, the abortion industry will become inextricably entwined with organ donation.
But we cannot protest unless we know. Legislation mandating the labeling of treatments or products that contain, or were manufactured with, biological material obtained from abortion is desperately needed. Consumers deserve to know about unethical practices required to make the treatments we receive.
Children of God for Life, an organization dedicated to exposing the use of aborted fetal tissue in the stem-cell industry, has proposed legislation that would inform patients and consumers. It is called the the Fair Labeling and Informed Consent Act. It would require labeling of products that use “aborted fetal material in any form” for manufacture or development.
Do not be fooled by the lack of daily headlines trumpeting embryonic stem-cell research. The stem-cell wars are not over. They have just slipped quietly into the alley behind the abortion business.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics on her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.