The Corner

Health Care

The Ethics of Vaccine Research Using Tissue from Aborted Fetuses

Microbiologist Milagros Sola processes coronavirus tests in a lab at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., April 14, 2020. (David Ryder/Reuters)

The race is on to find a vaccine that will help alleviate the effects of the novel coronavirus, and while the nation watches with bated breath, there’s a sticky side debate bubbling over whether vaccine research in the U.S. should be permitted to use fetal tissue from aborted babies.

In Public Discourse this morning, bioethicist Christopher Tollefson has the details:

Researcher Kim Hasenkrug has sought permission to pursue research on “humanized mice,” mice whose lungs have been made “human-like” using tissue obtained from aborted human fetuses. This research could be helpful in generating therapies for COVID-19 patients.

The response has been predictable. A number of Democrats have sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, which states: “Because of your restrictions, NIH is unable to utilize human fetal tissue to develop animal models of COVID-19 that can test potential vaccines and treatments to decelerate or even end this global health crisis. This inaction may ultimately put Americans further at risk of disease or death from COVID-19.”

And, in turn, a number of Republican members of the House and Senate have issued statements of support for the new policy and urged the administration not to ease restrictions. Religious leaders have likewise weighed in. The chairmen of four committees of bishops, along with other ethicists, sent a letter to the head of the Food and Drug Administration, urging that the FDA ensure that any developing vaccine for COVID-19 be “free from any connection to abortion.”

At the root of the disagreement is a Trump-administration policy, articulated last year, that required an end to intramural research using fetal tissue (for instance, such research conducted at the National Institutes of Health) and that allowed the continuation of any extramural projects already underway with government funding. Any new extramural projects would require review by an ethics advisory panel to decide whether they should be funded by the NIH, after giving due consideration to the ethical questions at stake.

As Tollefson notes, no such panel has been convened and the NIH is not presently funding any new extramural research that uses tissue from aborted fetuses. But given the relevance of the subject to one of the projects to develop a possible COVID-19 vaccine, he rehearses a few important ethical considerations that are worth highlighting.

First, he argues that we should not frame this debate as one of science against religion but rather as a matter of basic morality and fairness. “There are good reasons in ethics, a matter of reason and not faith, to put the brakes on federal funding for research that involves the remains of aborted human beings, if not to halt it altogether,” he writes.

Second, he resists the argument that ethics and scientific progress are at odds: “Science is itself an ethically governed practice, committed to genuine human goods—such as truth—and to moral norms concerning honesty and research integrity. In these respects, ethics is a part of good science.”

And finally, he argues that the aim of medicine is to improve the health of every patient, so it cannot be called good medicine to “predicate the health of some on the deliberate destruction of the lives and health of others,” as the push for fetal-tissue research does. Tollefson acknowledges that we are dealing with an unprecedented crisis but concludes that taking a more flexible approach to these ethical questions would be a fundamental mistake.

His conclusion is the right one. If one discards his ethical principles — in this case, that the ends never justify the means and that one human being cannot be intentionally destroyed to save another — the moment it becomes most difficult or controversial to hold fast to them, they aren’t principles at all but rather suggestions, fit only to be wielded and then thrown away as the situation demands.

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