Aborted Human Fetal Cell Atlas Presses Ethical Questions

COMMENTARY: How do we benefit from fetal tissue research while simultaneously opposing it?

A 3D-rendered medically-accurate illustration of a human fetus in the 20th week of gestation
A 3D-rendered medically-accurate illustration of a human fetus in the 20th week of gestation (photo: SciePro / Shutterstock.com)

As the COVID-19 vaccine emerged last November and debates about the morality of benefiting from medicines developed using fetal cell lines ensued, groundbreaking reports of the development of a comprehensive human fetal cell atlas also made news. Catholics face an ethical dilemma. How do we benefit from fetal tissue research while simultaneously opposing it? 


The Science of Single-Cell Transcriptomics

To understand the ethical impact, the science needs to be explained. Biomedical advances are happening fast. According to Science journal readers, the winning scientific breakthrough of 2018 was a combination of techniques that allows scientists to track embryo development at the molecular level. From the first cell divisions after fertilization, stem cells begin differentiating into the embryotic body. The diversification of cell lines is the result of the genetic instructions in individual cells, but how individual cells are activated by surrounding cells and environmental factors as a single cell becomes an entire organism is not well understood. 

A cell is basically a machine within a machine. To know what it does, you observe it. To figure out how it works, you find the instructions, take it apart, and figure out when and where each part follows those instructions. Then you put it all back together again in its proper context.

The 2018 winning combination of techniques that can compile a cell-by-cell story of genetic changes in a growing organism is called “single-cell transcriptomics.” The process involves:

  1. isolating large numbers of single cells, 
  2. simultaneously sequencing their genetic material, and 
  3. reconstructing the history of the organism with computational models. 

It should not come as a surprise that aborted children would become the gold standard for studying human development using this new technique. 


New Reports of a Fetal Cell Atlas

The Nov. 13, 2020, issue of the journal Science reported two studies conducted by teams at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle to produce a comprehensive cell atlas charting the genetics of cell types by organ from conception to birth. The atlas is predicted to provide unprecedented understanding of disorders, which account for most pediatric deaths, but it is built using unwanted children who were aborted.

In the first study, “A human cell atlas of fetal gene expression” (J. Cao et al.), researchers indexed gene expression in 121 “human fetal samples” ranging from 72 to 129 days post-conception. The aborted children were collected at the UW Birth Defects Research Laboratory, a federally funded hub for the collection of fetal tissues. The age of each child was determined by measuring the length of the child’s feet. “Tissues of interest were isolated,” meaning 15 organs — adrenal glands, cerebellum, cerebrum, eye, heart, intestine, kidney, liver, lung, muscle, pancreas, placenta, spleen, stomach and thymus — were dissected from the tiny bodies. 

The fetal tissues were then blotted dry with a gauze, wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil or placed in a tube, and frozen in liquid nitrogen. On the day of the data collection, the fetal organs were placed in plastic bags and pulverized with a hammer “with 3 to 5 impacts, avoiding a grinding motion.” The goal was to generate small uniform fragments from which nuclei could be collected for genetic analysis. Computer algorithms clustered the information by cell type and age, profiling more than 4 million single cells, identifying 77 cell types and approximately 650 cell subtypes. 

The second study, “A human cell atlas of fetal chromatin accessibility” (S. Domcke, et al.), required the extraction of genomic DNA for (sci-ATAC-seq3) genotyping the chromatin landscape. For this data set, 59 “human fetal samples” ranging from 89 to 125 days post-conception were processed similarly. Chromatin is the protein-DNA structure that forms chromosomes and regulates cells. It is responsible for specifying when to turn certain genes “on” as they differentiate into cell types in various organs. The team generated nearly 800,000 single-cell profiles. 

The purpose of the joint gene expression and chromatin project is to create a catalog of all major cell types from the various human organs on a developmental trajectory. The researchers note that filling out the whole atlas will be difficult because they do not have access to enough samples in the embryo stages of early development. First-trimester abortions are done by vacuum aspiration, which would prevent the researcher’s ability to isolate cell types. It is worth wondering how this difficulty will be solved.

The scientists anticipate doing more studies. “Looking forward, we envision that the somewhat narrow window of midgestational human development studied here will be complemented by additional atlases of earlier and later time points.”

And with funding provided by numerous governmental agencies and large technology companies, and foundations endowed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, this project is only getting started.


The Ethical Problem for Catholics 

Fetal tissue research is not new. Dating at least back to the 1930s, the vaccines for chickenpox, rubella and polio were developed by scientists who used aborted children in research. 

Now, with the COVID-19 vaccine, the Church has made it clear, once and for all, that benefiting from this research is morally permissible and, if the needs are grave enough, can even be a moral obligation to the community. As shown with the fetal cell atlas, the federal government, major universities and large technology companies see this research as lifesaving, as a matter of justice, and as a brilliant innovation in the best interest of national health. 

Catholics need to grapple with this moment in history. Undeniably, a comprehensive understanding of genetic development before birth will provide vast knowledge for cures and treatments to save the lives of a great many children. After all, the bodies of fetal children are the perfect specimen for human development studies.


What Do We Do?

Given all this, it seems that those who oppose the exploitation of aborted children in scientific research are defeated, except for a still small truth. 

If we are going to effectively work to end this practice so that we are no longer backed into this corner, there must be a movement to get back to the first principles of the dignity of human life — a sanctity based not on avoiding bodily suffering at any cost, but focused on achieving the happiness of an eternity in heaven and a realization that we are not just atoms and molecules but body and rational soul. 

This movement must be evangelical and reach beyond Catholic circles. It will take the conviction to say aloud that the ends do not justify the means, and that not all knowledge and cures are worth discovering if it requires sacrificing the unwanted and innocent among us to science

It will take the passion to fight for our very humanity — for even though we may gain the whole atlas of every cell from the beginning of human life to its end, research profits nothing if it comes at the expense of the human soul.