Fetal Rights

Janet E. Smith
April 2, 2012
Reproduced with Permission
Sexual Common Sense

Recent medical research indicates that tissue from the brains of fetuses could provide considerable assistance to individuals suffering from such diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It is also possible to transplant organs, such as livers, from fetus to fetus. To date, the US government has sustained a highly controversial ban against the use of fetal tissue for research purposes or for purposes of transplantation. This decision has met with great opposition from those who think that it is cruel and inhumane not to provide whatever relief possible to those suffering from various debilitating diseases. The availability of massive amounts of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses seems a great resource to many. Those who believe abortion to be a morally permissible act are not troubled by the charge that use of aborted fetal tissue amounts to complicity in abortion. Since they do not believe the fetus is a person, they maintain that it is permissible to use fetal tissue much in the same way one could use the hair gathered from the floor of a barber shop. They see use of fetal tissue as transforming what seems to be needless waste into a compassionate good.

Those opposed to the use of fetal tissue for purposes of research and transplantation have three major objections; 1) the fetus is not being respected as a human person of intrinsic worth but is being treated as an instrument; 2) use of fetal tissue amounts to complicity in abortion and demand for the use of such tissues will legitimate the abortion industry; 3) the ready access to tissue from aborted fetuses will lessen the effort to find alternative sources of treatment for sufferers of Alzheimer's, etc.

The question of the personhood of the fetus in respect to fetal rights is the same as that for the abortion issue (see entry on abortion). Science has indisputably demonstrated that the fetus is a human being (and it can be argued that personhood is coextensive with humanity). Several times in Scripture fetal life is recognized as precious to God. For instance, the psalmist (138) praises God, "who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother's womb"; Luke (1:42) reports that John the Baptist "leapt in the womb" upon hearing the voice of his savior's mother. Is not the humanity of the fetus being denied in the very act of abortion, and then its humanity being exploited for the purposes of transplantation?

Yet, that the fetus is a person does not necessarily rule out therapeutic or experimental use of fetal tissue. Use of human tissue, organs, and bodily parts for transplantation and research is common and universally approved as ethical. One necessary provision for the morality of such actions is that the source of the tissue, etc. or a proxy acting in the agent's interest, give free consent. How can the mother of an aborted fetus, the appropriate proxy, be presumed to have the best interests of her child in mind?

For decades ethicists have rejected using data gathered by Nazi scientists. They argue that it further demeans those individuals killed by the Nazis to use what was learned from their murdered bodies. In the use of fetal tissue, are we not benefiting from crimes committed against the most defenseless and innocent among us?

Fetal tissue for purposes of research and transplantation can be obtained from spontaneous miscarriages and artificially generated cell-lines. The acquisition of such is difficult for many reasons (e.g., spontaneous miscarriages do not happen at convenient times and fetuses that are spontaneously aborted often have genetic defects), but not impossible. If the medical industry becomes dependent on fetal tissue for alleviation of suffering, will it not become less likely that alternative treatments will be found and even more difficult to put an end to abortion?

A related issue is the practice of conceiving babies with the intent of using their tissue to assist already born persons. For instance, one highly publicized case featured the conception of a child with the hopes that the child's bone marrow would provide relief for a sibling suffering from bone cancer. This choice is ethically problematic for several reasons. Since the couple was not going to abort the unborn child if there was a marrow mismatch, many argue that the baby was not being used instrumentally but was truly loved.

Nonetheless, since the procedure for a marrow transplantation involves considerable pain and risk, there is a question whether it is right to expose a baby to such pain and risk for a procedure that is not beneficial to himself. Yet, were the child loved unconditionally for himself, and if the parents were extending their own principles of Christian charity through their child, it seems that conceiving a child to help another child is within the realm of moral acceptability.

Currently the use of fetal tissue and organs is inextricably linked with abortion; until abortion becomes illegal, it will be difficulty to extend to the unborn the respect due them as persons and difficult to assess any other acts where it seems that the child is being used as an instrument rather than a person with intrinsic worth.