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  • Washington Highlights

    House Panel Explores Ethics of Fetal Tissue Research

    Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

    The House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives held its first hearing March 2 on “Bioethics and Fetal Tissue.” The panel was created last fall to investigate allegations of the sale of human fetal tissue for profit.

    Panel Chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said the hearing was focused “on procuring and transferring baby body parts and related matters…so that we as legislators might become informed about the ethical implications and issues for: the woman who terminates a pregnancy, for the researcher, for the person who needs a cure, for the baby.” Republican questions focused primarily on the consent process for tissue donation and also whether this research could be conducted using tissue from other sources, such as miscarriages or stem cells.

    Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said “today’s hearing is not part of a serious investigation into fetal tissue research or anything else.” She added, “The unfortunate truth is that this partisan pursuit of the manufactured, false allegations of anti-abortion extremists is putting Americans in harm’s way, and it must stop. It is time to turn our attention to ensuring – not attacking – critical medical research and women’s access to healthcare.”

    Democrats challenged the need to collect the names of researchers, students, and administrative staff involved in fetal tissue research, expressing concerns that making this information public would endanger these individuals. The panel rejected on a straight party line vote a Democratic motion to quash subpoenas that had been issued to compel institutions to release these names.

    Alta Charo, J.D., Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told the panel that “fetal tissue has been used in research in this country since the 1920s, and NIH-funded since the 1950s. It has been deemed ethical by federal review bodies going back a half a century, and has been specifically authorized for funding by Congress for a quarter-century, precisely because it has saved the lives of countless people, including children and infants. It continues to be ethical and it will continue to save lives. In my view, supporting this research represents a commitment to helping today’s patients and tomorrow’s infants.”

    Lawrence Goldstein, distinguished professor, Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and Director, UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, testified on behalf of himself and the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the American Society for Cell Biology. He told the panel, “My message is simple: fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern cutting edge medical research. These fetal tissues and cells cannot be replaced by embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed stem cells, or adult stem cells. These other cell types do not make astrocytes with identical properties as those from fetal sources.”

    Dr. Goldstein also described three examples of “vital cutting edge-state of the art medical research that depends upon the use of fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded” in the areas of Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, and kidney generation.

    Testifying on her own behalf, Kathleen Schmainda, Ph.D., a professor of Radiology & Biophysics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the panel “it needs to be made clear that no current medical treatments exist that have required using fetal tissues for their discovery or development.” She refuted the claim that without continued access to fetal tissue, the discovery of new therapies will be prevented. And she asserted that “by purchasing these fetal tissue products scientists are helping to create a market that drives the abortion–biotechnology industry complex.”

    Other witnesses included:

    • Paige Comstock Cunningham, J.D. executive director, The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity;
    • Gerard Kevin Donovan, M.D., senior clinical scholar, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University; and
    • Patrick Lee, Ph.D., professor, Center for Bioethics, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

    Further hearings are expected.