Video Fallout

Controversy over Planned Parenthood leads to new scrutiny of faculty members' research with fetal tissue -- including one professor-turned-presidential candidate who is anti-abortion.

August 17, 2015

In the last week, a state legislator in Wisconsin suggested that professors defending the use of fetal tissue in research should think about the work of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Also in the last week, Ben Carson, formerly a professor at Johns Hopkins University known for his path-breaking research and now an anti-abortion candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, found himself questioned on his use of fetal tissue for research in 1992.

Both of those developments are due to the release of a series of videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the use and potential purchase of fetal tissue after abortions. Planned Parenthood states (and many independent observers who have watched all the videotape, not just the brief portions publicized by anti-abortion groups that pretended to be medical research suppliers, agree) that the videos show nothing illegal.

And in fact it is legal for Planned Parenthood or other organizations that perform abortions to sell fetal tissue for research, as long as the organizations do not profit from the sale (but they can be reimbursed for their expenses). It is also the case that some of those filmed in these videos talk about prices for fetal tissue and appear cavalier about the process.

But even if no evidence has emerged to show that Planned Parenthood broke the law, the videos have set off calls for investigations and for cutting off all federal or state funds to Planned Parenthood. While many of those calls suggest that denying federal funds to Planned Parenthood will eliminate abortions there, federal law for decades has banned the use of federal funds by Planned Parenthood (or other groups) for abortion. So the loss of funds might have no impact on abortions, but would represent a significant blow (to the tune of a half billion dollars).

The videos have, however, drawn attention to a reality many researchers don't much talk about: they depend on fetal tissue for many studies, and much of this fetal tissue comes from suppliers that obtain it from Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.

Now, some prominent researchers and research organizations are speaking out about why these studies matter, and are calling for those who care about biomedical research to defend Planned Parenthood.

A new editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine states: "It is shameful that a radical anti-choice group whose goal is the destruction of Planned Parenthood continues to twist the facts to achieve its ends. We thank the women who made the choice to help improve the human condition through their tissue donation; we applaud the people who make this work possible and those who use these materials to advance human health. We are outraged by those who debase these women, this work and Planned Parenthood by distorting the facts for political ends."

Conflict in Colorado

The first impact on a university research program came at Colorado State University, which has dropped StemExpress (which in the past received some fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood but now says it will no longer do so) as a supplier of fetal tissue.

The university acted after U.S. Representative Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, wrote to the university, saying that he was "shocked" to find out that Colorado State was conducting research using "aborted babies' body parts" that had been obtained "directly or indirectly" from a California affiliate of Planned Parenthood, which apparently provided the fetal tissue in question to StemExpress. Lamborn wrote that the purchase of these materials was "extreme and outrageous," and a violation of a state law he sponsored as a legislator, prior to coming to Congress, barring those organizations that perform abortions from selling fetal tissue.

Tony Frank, president of Colorado State, wrote back to Lamborn, denying that the university was breaking any law. He said that the state law Lamborn wrote regulates abortion providers, and that Colorado State is not one. He said the university uses only licensed providers of fetal tissue and actually doesn't do a lot of work requiring fetal tissue. As for the project for which StemExpress was used, Frank said that the research totally complied with federal law, was supported by the National Institutes of Health and was designed to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.

Still, Frank said Colorado State would not buy any fetal tissue from providers linked to the Planned Parenthood videos, at least until investigations are complete. Further, he said the university would make "all efforts" to avoid using fetal tissue "where such alternatives allow key research to continue."

Touching Presidential Politics

The revelations about Ben Carson show how complicated it can be to defend or oppose all use of fetal tissue. Carson's anti-abortion views, if the basis of law, cut off the supply of fetal tissue.

Shortly after the Planned Parenthood videos came out, Carson appeared on Fox News and said of fetal tissue research: “It’s been overpromised what the benefits of fetal research would be. And very much underdelivered. And if you go back over the years, and look at the research that has been done and all the things that it was supposed to deliver, very little of that has been done, and there’s nothing that can’t be done without fetal tissue …. And, you know, a little developing baby is just an incredible sight to behold. You know, now that we have very good ultrasound techniques, even have the ability to endoscopically look at these little human beings as they’re developing. At 17 weeks, you know, you’ve got a nice little nose and little fingers and hands, and the heart’s beating, and it can respond to environmental stimulus. I mean, how can you just believe that that’s a[n] irrelevant mass of cells? And that’s what they want you to believe, when in fact, it is a human being.”

Those comments prompted Jen Gunter, a medical doctor, to search for and find evidence that Carson had used fetal tissue in research and in fact had used tissue from a 17-week-old fetus. On her blog, Gunter quoted from a 1992 paper Carson co-wrote based on findings from the research, and she called him a hypocrite.

"Perhaps Dr. Carson feels that only his work delivered the goods and all other researchers have produced inconsequential work, an Ebola vaccine clearly not of merit by Carson’s logic," Gunter wrote. "Could he think his own research was useless? However, if it was noncontributory to the field, why was it published? Maybe he forgot that he’d done the research on fetal tissue? Convenient I suppose, if you are a Presidential hopeful and want to use your doctor credentials to get prime Fox and Breitbart space and there is a fetal-tissue-for-research issue."

Some anti-abortion politicians joined in the criticism. Rick Santorum, a rival of Carson's for the Republican presidential nomination who has struggled so far this year, called Carson's research "morally suspect" and said it was the kind of argument that might encourage women to have abortions and donate the resulting fetal tissue. Santorum told CNN that women are being told that "if you get an abortion good things can come from it, we're going to use this tissue for a lot of reasons."

Carson, in an interview with The Washington Post, defended his research, despite the apparent contradiction with what he had told Fox News. What matters, Carson said, was whether the fetal tissue donation had been used to encourage abortion. "You have to look at the intent," he said. "To willfully ignore evidence that you have for some ideological reason is wrong. If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it."

He also said that he has not used fetal tissue in research since the study that led to the 1992 paper. Many have noted that Carson's defense seems to suggest some portion of fetal tissue comes from women who abort for the purpose of donating the fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood and various researchers report that some women who have abortions do want to donate the tissue, but they insist that there has never been any evidence of women seeking abortions for the purpose of donating tissue.

Wisconsin Wrangling

While much of the criticism of anti-abortion politicians has been directed at Planned Parenthood, a legislative hearing in Wisconsin this year shows how faculty members can find themselves in the line of fire. A bill with several dozen sponsors has been introduced in the Assembly there that would ban any purchase or use of fetal tissue, effectively making it impossible for researchers to obtain the tissue they need.

The bill prompted John R. Raymond Sr., president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and Robert N. Golden, dean of the medical school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to write a joint essay for The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel defending research with fetal tissue. Researchers who continue key scientific efforts "would be criminals" under the law, they wrote, and their research would be forced to "a complete, abrupt stop."

"We believe strongly that, in Wisconsin, tissue donation and medical research are managed under strong and effective ethical guidelines," wrote Raymond and Golden. "We also know, without a doubt, that future treatments and cures will only come from well-designed research. In the 1950s, Jonas Salk relied on fetal tissue to develop his polio vaccine. Our hope, and that of millions of patients, is that contemporary research will find solutions to the many devastating diseases that remain. Your state of Wisconsin has been a leader in that effort. We ask for your support in keeping it that way."

There were no signs that the essay swayed those pushing the legislation. At a hearing, Representative Jesse Kremer, a Republican who backs the bill, asked Golden if he had looked at the Nazi-era research studies, WDJT News reported, before denying that he was comparing the Wisconsin researchers who use fetal tissue to Nazis.

But despite that denial, Kremer again made the Nazi comparison in a statement he made after the hearing. “The realization that the ethical and moral fabric of our society has deteriorated to this point is startling,” he wrote. “One cannot help but think of the atrocities committed in the name of research by Dr. Josef Mengele in 1940s Germany when contemplating the situation here today. I simply cannot condone research, no matter how beneficial to our state’s economy, that obtains material through such means. I trust that this bill will put an end to these practices.”


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