Fetal Research and Consent

Christopher Kaczor
Department of Philosophy
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles. California
Reproduced with Permission

Research on human fetal life involves numerous complex medical, moral, and legal aspects. It is not always easy, nor desirable, to seal off one aspect from another, but I want to focus on one element: the problem of consent. The topic is a timely and important one. Research on human fetal life is reportedly a growing industry and the subject of legal developments in France, where the government proposed to allow research using human embryos: in Great Britain, where fetuses have been stored without parental consent; and in the United States, where scientists are creating human embryos for the sole purpose of research.

In order to "donate one's body to science," in the case of an adult, there must be voluntary, informed consent, or in the case of a minor, informed consent from a parent. Thus, were a child to die in some tragic accident, it would be permissible for her parents to donate her organs to a needy person or to donate the body for legitimate scientific research. As long as the body is given due respect and not done (as formerly sometimes happened with cremation) as a token of one's disbelief in the resurrection of the body or hatred of the diseased, it is not wrong to use human corpses in a way that benefits others. In fact, it is laudable.

No Consent after Abortion

How would these widely accepted norms for tissue and organ donation apply in the case of fetal tissue research? Obviously, in the case of the use of fetal tissue, a fetus cannot give consent to have his or her body donated to science, and so parental consent must be given. By law, parental consent indeed must be given; but a moral problem remains.

If the philosopher Immanuel Kant is to be believed, parental rights over their children arise because of parental duties. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , the fourth commandment, to honor father and mother, "includes and presupposes the duties of parents...." (CCC 2199). In procreating parents incur duties. The duties of parents to their child include looking after the child's well-being and development until the child can exercise reason on his or her own. However, parents cannot exercise this duty over children unless they have rights to control and command the obedience of children. The limits of parental authority then are defmed by what gives rise to parental authority, namely the duty to do good for the child. Thus parental authority never extends to a right to do anything whatsoever that is intentionally harmful to their children, e.g., sexual abuse, selling into slavery, killing, etc. For this same reason, a child may rightfully and indeed should disobey parental requests to do evil. Of course, such a determination could be difficult to make. and one would hope that such abuses of parental authority would be few. In any case, parental authority over children derives from their duties to protect and nurture their children, and their authority over their children is circumscribed by these duties.

Thus. should a parent fail to care for a child in a sufficiently grave way, that parent's rights to his or her child are morally, and also sometimes legally, terminated. The parent who grossly abuses his child has failed in his duty to that child and no longer enjoys parental authority. Clearly, intentionally killing one's own offspring is a grave failure of a parent's duty to care properly for that child. The parent, in having seriously failed in his or her parental duties, also lacks any authority over how to dispose of the child's remains. Thus, the moral right to decide about the child's remains is terminated in the choice to abort the child. Nor can anyone else involved in the child's death claim a similar moral right. Legally, of course, the "right to choose" what happens to the child's corpse remains intact, but this only reflects once again the gross cleavage in the United States between the legal and moral spheres under current law.

A Possible Objection

The objection might be made that fetal research makes the best of a bad situation. Under current law in the United States, and even more importantly, in the current cultural situation, abortions will take place. The numbers vary somewhat, but each year in the U.S. we can expect well over one million of them. Forbidding fetal research would not eliminate abortion or make parents want, or at least not harm their children. Why not bring some good out of something tragic?

This objection appeals to a reasonable moral principle. If one cannot prevent evil, then one should try to minimize it or make the best of it. But the undertaking of fetal research without proper authorization is ifselfan evil insofar as it dishonors the remains of a human being. A human body, even a corpse, is not material that can be used at will. Abortion denies the humanity of the unborn in a grave way, and research on aborted fetuses denies humanity again. We would not consider the body of a six year old "donated to science" unless parental consent were given, even if such research would put a tragic event to a good use. Indeed, only a Dr. Frankenstein would illicitly take a corpse for research without proper permission because such use violates the dignity of a human person whose remains should be respected.

Even if the embryo or fetus is not obtained from abortion, the other most common way of obtaining fetal tissue, namely by destroying "spare embryos" left over from in vitro fertilization, is also problematic. Another danger of embryo experimentation and fetal tissue use consists in a dehumanization of unborn human life as just so many "spare parts" for the use of others. This has become a special problem in the scientific effort to obtain human stem cells.

John Paul 11, in Evangelium vitae, notes that this dehumanization is one of the harmful side effects of various artificial kinds of reproduction:

The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time. Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often greater man that needed for implantation in the woman's womb and these so-called "spare embryos" are then destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple "biological material" to be freely disposed of (no. 14).

Thus, what seems to be in the service of life undermines the true value of the person. Such use of human being is akin to slavery. One person is used to benefit another as if he or she were a piece of property. Fetal research can lead to a commodification of human life, exemplified in its most chilling form by the auctioning of various human body parts for research. Such fetal research characteristically fails to respect the humanity of the fetus by using his or her body, even in death, simply as a means to an end.

Ironically, fetal tissue research itself undermines one of the most common arguments made in favor of abortion. We are told: "It's not really human." However it is also argued that human fetal research must take place, and that one cannot substitute research on non-human animals, because cells from other kinds of animals react differently than human cells. The research is attempting to cure diseases in humans - not lab rats. Present in this argument, of course, is the tacit admission that the fetus is indeed a human being. In arguments for abortion, the humanity of the fetus is forgotten: in arguments for fetal research, the necessity of using human fetuses is affirmed.

Is Any Fetal Research Possible?

Fetal research, in my opinion, could be morally justified in some circumstances. Let us say that a woman has a spontaneous miscarriage and the husband and wife decide that they will donate the unfortunate child's body to science. Although other factors might alter the scenario, this donation would presumably not be intrinsically evil. However, the present circumstances in the United States and Europe make such a scenario impossible. The researchers, according to their own specifications, want "fresh" human corpses with no abnormalities. This is not often the case in spontaneous miscarriage. Thus, the only realistic supply of fetal tissue available is from aborted babies. In the present situation, abortion and fetal tissue research are inextricably linked. Although all of us want cures for diseases, means to finding cures in this case may come with a medicine too bitter to swallow. It is a shallow happiness that is built on man's inhumanity to man.