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Politics & Policy

Abortion or Alzheimer’s?: The Nation‘s False Choice

Over at The Nation, Katha Pollitt (author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) offers what she apparently thinks is a near-insurmountable argument for the continuation of fetal-tissue research:

If you think fetal-tissue research is wrong and should be banned, would you refuse to use any therapies that may come out of it? I thought not. I’ve posed this question to abortion opponents before, but so far, no one has said, Yes, Katha, I would rather let Alzheimer’s turn my brain into cottage cheese and ketchup than benefit from this diabolical practice. If I get Parkinson’s, HIV, breast cancer, diabetes, or the flu; if I go blind from macular degeneration; if I have a miscarriage, so be it. Treatments for those conditions are still being developed, but surprise! If you have been vaccinated for polio, mumps, measles, chicken pox, hepatitis, or rabies, it may be too late for you to stand your ethical ground: You have already benefited from fetal-tissue research. This is, after all, a practice that’s been legal since the 1930s. In 1954, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins won the Nobel Prize for work on the polio virus that paved the way for the Salk and Sabin vaccines. They used fetal tissue, the monsters. Should their heirs return the medals?

There are several points to be made here.

First, Pollitt’s litany of fetal research “successes” is broadly accurate, but overstated. For example, as Paul A. Offit recounts in his book The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, Thomas Weller inoculated polio virus into tissues from an aborted human fetus in late March 1948, and it yielded unexpected success. However: “Later, the group found that polio virus could be grown in human foreskins (obtained by circumcisions), in human kidneys, and in monkey kidneys.” So while tissue from an aborted child was occasioned Weller and company’s success, the polio vaccine did not strictly rely on it. That may sound like parsing, but it’s an important point. What came of Weller et al.’s discovery — Jonas Salk’s transformative polio vaccine — was cultured in monkey tissue.

Which gets to a second point: Pollitt conflates past success with present necessity and future promise. Today, ten vaccines, for chicken pox, hepatitis A and B, polio, rabies, and measles/mumps/rubella, are cultured from human fetal tissue taken from aborted children. However, those vaccines are from just two children — a three-month old girl aborted in 1962, and a 14-week-old boy aborted in 1966. These two cell cultures have been multiplied for decades, so the vaccines can remain available without the need to employ new tissue. The preservation of current vaccines offers no argument for continuing fetal-tissue procurement.

As to the future, there is no reason to believe that fetal-tissue research offers more promise than research on other, non-controversial sources of tissue — adult stem cells, for instance. Pollitt’s appeal to the deleterious effects of Alzheimer’s is powerful, but it ignores the salient fact: There is no evidence that fetal-tissue research is more likely to yield a cure than any other relevant research. In fact, the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin has suggested just the opposite. Sure, it might yield a cure — but at what cost?

That brings us to the third point (succinctly argued by my colleague Charles Cooke in August): This is, at heart, not a scientific debate; it is a moral one. If a fetus is not a human, endowed with all the rights and protections that accrue thereto, until 20 weeks/the third trimester/birth/you take it home from the hospital, then we need not debate further. Use fetal tissue for medical research, make art with it, put it in your smoothie — it has no moral standing; carpe diem. Alternately, if it’s a human being from the moment of conception, then conducting research on an abortion victim is no different than conducting research on a murder victim; and if you’re more exercised about the people prohibiting research than the people committing murder, you should probably reconsider your priorities.

But Pollitt seems to have no notion of a moral standpoint other than her own. This is why her opening sentences are unpersuasive. It is entirely consistent to believe that fetal-tissue research is wrong, and that its fruits ought not to be rejected out-of-hand. Andreas Vesalius, the “father” of modern anatomical science, was a notorious grave robber, but students didn’t scrap his findings. And while it presents a far more difficult case, had Nazi scientists made definitive, unique medical advances that showed a likelihood of saving lives, using those discoveries would not be unthinkable. Great good can come out of great evil, without excusing the original evil. Perhaps Ms. Pollitt should get out more. This is kind of the whole Christian story.

But “should we then continue to sin so that grace may abound”? Katha Pollitt says yes. I say no.

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