Human Exceptionalism

Fetal Farming is Not a Pipedream: History of Living Fetal Experiments

I have written here often that the embryonic stem cell debate is merely the opening stanza of a much broader agenda that would instrumentalize unborn human beings for use in experiments, treatments, and for body parts. Alas, using fetuses in such a crassly utilitarian way has already been done. Back in the late 1960s, there were a series of experiments on living fetuses–to the general applause of the scientific community.

I learned of this horror from a wonderful book by Pamela Winnick called A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion. Lest you think it is a religious attack on science, Winnick is a self-described secular Jew, who sees science–better stated scientism–attacking the very concept of intrinsic human dignity.

A Jealous God should send chills up the spine of anyone who believes in human exceptionalism and the sanctity/equality of human life. In a discussion germane to the subject of this post, she writes on page 24 of her book:

In a 1968 study called the “Artificial Placenta,” a twenty-six week old fetus, weighing more than a pound, was obtained from a fourteen-year-old girl, presumably from a therapeutic abortion. Along with fourteen other fetuses, it was immersed in a liquid containing oxygen and kept alive for a full five hours.

She then quotes from the study itself

For the whole 5 hours of life, the fetus did not respire. Irregular gasping movements, twice a minute occurred in the middle of the experiment but there was not proper respiration. Once the profusion [pumping in of oxygenated blood] was stopped, however, the gasping respiratory efforts increased to 8 to 10 per minute…After stopping the circuit, the heart slowed, became irregular and eventually stopped…The fetus was quiet, making occasional stretching limb movements very much oke the ones reported in other human work…[T]he fetus died 21 minutes after leaving the circuit.

Winnick then reports that rather than being appalled, the scientists lauded this living fetal experimentation:

The study won the Foundation Prize Award from the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

These experiments were stopped because an outraged Congress–led by Senator Ted Kennedy–reacting to an outraged public, outlawed such a crassly instrumental use of fetal human beings. But today, with human exceptionalism under siege, the opening of the drive to revoke the Dickey Amendment, which would allow federal funding of the creation and destruction of embryos for research, the assertion throughout secular bioethics that “personhood” rather than “humanhood” is what counts morally, with “the scientists” trumpeting the potential CURES! CURES! CURES! that could flow from the instrumental use of nascent human life–and relevantly, people with significant cognitive impairments–it is all too easy to see Congress easing the prohibition against living fetal experiments once human cloning is perfected and an artificial uterus devised so that scientists could experiment on developing human life.
And the justification for these experiments would be the same ones we hear today with regard to ESCR: They will be tossed out anyway, so we might as well get some use out of them; they will never be born anyway, so what’s the harm? They aren’t persons, so we should have no moral qualms.

Come to think about it, the scientists who took that poor, potentially viable fetus and stuck him or her in a tank rather than providing life-sustaining treatment after the therapeutic abortion–which would seem to have had to have been via induced labor, since the delivered baby was alive and intact–probably said, “Oh well, it’s being aborted anyway: We might as well get some good use out of it.” Come to think of it further, if this is true, it wasn’t fetal experimentation at all, but living infant experimentation.
A Jealous God is highly recommended reading for all SHSers. Here’s my book review published in First Things.

(The footnote for the study quote is: G. Chamberlin, “An Artificial Placenta,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol 100, no 615 (1968.)

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