Fetal Tissue Cell Research Is a Critical Tool for Science

Andrew Kim, Staff Writer

For years, fetal tissue cell research has played a critical role in advancing medical science, enabling the development of new treatments and therapies for a wide range of diseases and conditions. However, despite the many benefits of this research, there has been significant opposition to it, with opponents reporting concerns about the ethical implications of using fetal tissue in research. While these concerns are understandable, the fact remains that fetal tissue research is essential for advancing medical science and improving public health. As such, it is imperative that we make it easier for researchers to access the resources they need to conduct this important work.

The recent decision by the Biden administration to remove some human fetal tissue research restrictions is a positive step in this direction. As the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) noted in a statement, fetal tissue “remains essential … for studying viral infections from HIV, Zika, coronavirus, and other viruses.” This policy reversal is a “return to evidence-based policymaking” that will enable researchers to continue making important discoveries that benefit all of us. Fetal tissue cell research has also proven its critical role in the development of many new treatments for diseases. According to the Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Human Cell and Tissue Research website, fetal tissue research plays a vital role in making new discoveries and developing products for protecting and promoting human health. In fact, no FDA-approved medication or treatment available today has been approved for use without first originating from discoveries made utilizing human cells or tissue. Fetal cell lines have been used to develop and test lifesaving vaccines, including those that protect against COVID-19, polio, chickenpox, shingles, measles, rubella, rabies, and hepatitis A. Fetal tissues have also been used to better understand how to support a healthy pregnancy, healthy babies, and to develop a number of medications for treating cancer, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and more.

Despite the clear benefits of fetal tissue research, there are still those who oppose it on ethical grounds. David Prentice, vice president and research director of the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, argues that the change is a “turn to poor ethics as well as poor science.” However, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes, federal laws and regulations require informed consent for research involving the transplantation of human fetal tissue and for research with human fetal material associated with information that can identify a living individual. Most states also require informed consent for the use of fetal tissue in research. Accordingly, we can be confident that researchers using fetal tissue are doing so in an ethical manner that respects the rights and dignity of the donors. Opponents of fetal tissue research additionally argue that it is unethical because deriving the stem cells destroys the blastocyst, an unimplanted human embryo at the sixth to the eighth day of development. As the Harvard Stem Cell Institute explains, “There is no clear moment in the passage from conception to birth that marks the emergence of the human person. Unless we can point to such a moment, we must regard embryos as possessing the same inviolability as fully developed human beings.” Given that it is difficult to determine the point at which an embryo becomes human, the arguments that deny researchers access to fetal tissue are justified and do in fact have a basis.

In conclusion, fetal tissue cell research is a critical tool for advancing medical science and improving public health, but it also involves ethical questions that seem impossible to answer at the moment. While there are legitimate ethical concerns surrounding this research, the fact remains that it is being conducted in an ethical manner that respects the rights and dignity of the donors. As such, efforts to reduce the limits on fetal tissue cell research are applaudable and must be maintained to increase scientific advancements and innovations.