Celebrate Life March-April 1994
TISSUE TRANSPLANTS: THE COMING BATTLE
by Joseph P. Martino, Ph.D., copyright 1994
One year ago, President Clinton rescinded the ban on federal funding of
experiments with fetal tissue, a ban that had originally been imposed by
President George Bush. To many in the pro-life movement, this was the
reversal of a battle which they thought had been won. Unfortunately, the
situation was even worse than many realized. When President Bush
imposed a ban on funding of fetal tissue experiments, he temporarily
won a battle but lost the war.
There had been considerable interest in the possibility that fetal
tissues might be used to counteract Parkinson's Disease. This disease
arises from the death of certain nerve cells in the human brain. The idea
was that cells from an unborn baby might avoid rejection by the
recipient's immune system, and would grow to replace the failed cells in
A wide range of organizations, from the Alliance for Aging Research to
the United Parkinson Foundation, and including several medical
societies, supported the use of fetal tissues in experiments to determine
whether they would actually have the suggested beneficial effect. To date,
all such experiments have been inconclusive. However, people suffering
from Parkinson's Disease, as well as many victims of other degenerative
diseases, wanted more experiments, in the hope that the treatment
would prove effective.
The problem for pro-lifers was that the cells to be transplanted would
be obtained from aborted fetuses. Moreover, because the cells had to be
living, they would be obtained from the brains of living fetuses. The cells
would literally be harvested from live babies, before the babies were
As a stopgap measure, Bush established a tissue bank, to be used for
experimental purposes. The tissues were to be obtained from
miscarriages, spontaneous abortions, ectopic pregnancies, and other
sources that didn't involve deliberately procured abortions. These tissues
were to be used to verify whether the proposed treatment actually
By establishing such a tissue bank, however, Bush conceded the
basic demands of the proponents of fetal tissue transplants. To begin
with, it was doubtful that the tissues in the bank would be satisfactory,
since they would be abnormal at best and might even be dead. Moreover,
the proponents of fetal tissue transplants could easily have overwhelmed
even a supply of live and healthy tissue. All that would have been
necessary was that experimenters propose a large number of
experiments, and have pro-abortion "peer reviewers" rate them as "good
science." Ultimately, however, had the experiments proven successful,
the nearly one million Parkinson's Disease sufferers in the U.S. would
have demanded far more tissues than could have been supplied by
spontaneous abortions. Thus, even by allowing the experiments to
continue at all, President Bush started the nation down a path that
would lead to regular use of fetal tissue from procured abortions.
President Clinton's recision of the fetal tissue funding ban was merely
the next milestone on that path.
Had the experiments on patients with Parkinson's Disease turned out
to be failures, the demand for fetal tissue might have vanished. However,
new developments promise to create a huge demand for fetal tissue
regardless of the outcome of the experiments with treatments for
Current experiments with "biosynthetic skin" are much more
successful than the Parkinson's experiments. Burn victims, and people
suffering from skin cancer, often need extensive skin grafts. Where
possible, the grafts are taken from other parts of the victim's body, to
eliminate problems of immune rejection. A severely burned patient,
however, may not have enough skin to provide a source for grafts.
It turns out that the dermis, which underlies the epidermis (the outer
layer of skin), is less subject to rejection than is the epidermis. Thus
grafts from donors can often be accepted. Dermis grafts can be lifesaving
for burn victims.
A technique currently undergoing testing involves growing dermis
cells, which can then be grafted onto a burn victim. A fragment of tissue
is placed in a solution that dissolves it into individual cells. These cells
are then placed on a closely spaced mesh of biodegradable fibers, and
immersed in a nutrient bath. The cells grow and multiply to form a layer
on the mesh. This layer can then be transplanted, and the mesh
eventually disappears, leaving a healthy dermis to replace the one the
The technique is not limited to growing dermal tissue. It can also be
used to grow cultured cartilage, and cultured livers, both of which are
readily accepted by the body's immune system. The cartilage could be
used to reconstruct noses, knees, and ears. The livers could be used to
replace failing livers.
From a humane standpoint, these biosynthetic tissues offer great
promise. They can save lives, restore function to damaged joints, and
rebuild facial features ravaged by cancer or accident. The problem is,
where will the tissue come from?
Currently, the original tissue to be grown into skin is obtained from
foreskins available as a result of circumcisions in hospitals. This is
clearly waste tissue, and recovering it for beneficial use is not only
acceptable but praiseworthy.
However, this source will not be able to supply all the skin needed
once the technique is proven and adopted as a standard treatment.
Moreover, this source cannot supply cartilage or liver tissue.
Given the existing pressure to use fetal tissue as a possible cure for
Parkinson's Disease despite the lack of success so far, it is easy to see
what will happen once cultured biosynthetic tissues enter standard
medical practice. The only possible source for the amount of "seed"
material required will be aborted fetuses. Since the tissues must be
living, it will no longer be a matter of extracting only brain tissue from a
living child, but of "harvesting" the whole living body, chopping it into
pieces to be used as the starting point for cultured tissues.
The horrors we have seen in the past 20 years may be only a preview
of what is coming. We may find abortion counselors reassuring their
clients by saying, "Some good will come of this. The tissues will be used
to save someone's life." We may even find women being paid to "grow" a
baby until it's ready for "harvest."
Those of us in the pro-life movement need to be aware of the
implications of current medical research on cultured tissue. We may
have only a year or two before cultured dermis becomes an approved
medical practice. Once that happens, the link between abortions and
tissue harvesting will be forged quickly. We need to begin educating
people that harvesting tissue from unborn babies is too high a price to
pay, even to save the lives of burn victims.
Dr. Joseph Martino is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of
Dayton Research Institute, and President of Shelby County (Ohio) Right
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