Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its allies in the media are attempting to deflect the scrutiny resulting from the Center for Medical Progress’ series of videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s gruesome trade of harvesting and peddling the organs and other vital tissue from aborted infants. The exposure of its track record of flouting the law and profiting from the sale of the remains of aborted infants is not good publicity for an organization receiving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Planned Parenthood PR machine is working furiously to spin themselves as the good guys.
In their statements responding to the revelations from CMP’s undercover videos, Planned Parenthood Federation President Cecile Richards and Vice President of Communications Eric Ferrero attempt to justify their criminal activity claiming that the research to be performed would be “life-saving” in nature. This is the consistent line of talking points followed by nearly every abortion industry representative or writer defending Planned Parenthood. Whether or not the company’s handling of fetal tissue is legal or moral, whether or not the tissue had a tragic origin, at least it can be used for good, they say.1
While it is understandable under the circumstances that Planned Parenthood would like the public to focus on something other than its selling aborted infant tissue, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of allowing the discussion to shift to one about “life-saving” research, much less conceding that research using fetal tissue is in fact “saving lives.”
One Planned Parenthood affiliate’s tissue donation consent form tells vulnerable women: “Research using the blood from pregnant women and tissue that has been aborted has been used to treat and find a cure for such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and AIDS.”2 The wording makes it seem as if the aborted tissue has already led to cures, but the existence of these or any other “cures” is questionable, and seldom unique to fetal tissue. A quick review of the claims made by Planned Parenthood and its allies about the value of research using fetal tissue reveals that these claims are misleading, if not downright false.
Some defenders of fetal tissue research, such as Vox.com’s Sarah Kliff and microbiologist Nathalia Holt, draw attention to the role of fetal tissue in the development of vaccines. Kliff points out that the scientists who received the 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine used fetal kidney cells to develop the polio vaccine. A version of the rubella vaccine also used aborted tissue.3 Similarly, Holt writes in an article published in the New York Times that two stem cell lines from two different aborted fetuses are still used “to produce vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. From two terminated pregnancies,” she declares, “countless lives have been spared.”4
Her statement is technically true, but irrelevant. As Maureen L. Condic—a human stem cell researcher and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine—points out in her National Review rebuttal to Holt’s piece, fetal tissue is no longer required for vaccines. Further, the cell lines used for these vaccines are far removed from their source material. They are no longer fetal stem cells, but heavily altered, immortalized cell lines that divide indefinitely in culture. They were selected for traits that made them capable of adapting to new DNA to make vaccines, not specifically because they were fetal cells. Although using fetal cells was more expedient sixty years ago due to their speed of propagation, modern technology allows the transformation of adult stem cells into cell lines with the same properties.5
Thus, contrary to the implications of Kliff and Holt, no fetal tissue is necessary for vaccines. The Charlotte Lozier Institute’s “History of Fetal Tissue Research and Transplants” makes this clear. Although the two cell lines Holt mentions are still in use, the Centers for Disease Control asserts that no new lines are needed. Even these could be replaced by newer technology using non-fetal cell lines. The new Ebola vaccine uses a monkey cell line, rendering fetal cell lines completely unnecessary.6
Fetal tissue has also been used to treat degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, but clinical trials have produced mixed results, some of which are horrific. According to a briefing paper prepared by the American Society for Cell Biology, transplanting fetal tissue into the brain successfully mitigated or eliminated symptoms for some patients, but caused “severe neurological side effects” in others.7 The Lozier Institute paper elaborates: in 2001, an NIH-funded clinical trial using fetal tissue caused the patients to writhe and twitch uncontrollably, results the doctors termed “absolutely devastating,” “tragic, catastrophic,” and a “real nightmare.” Another study occurred in 2003 with similar results, prompting a moratorium on fetal tissue implants for Parkinson’s.8
A 2009 report urged caution after a patient with Huntington’s disease developed a growing mass of tissue where the fetal brain cells had been injected for treatment.9 Since fetal tissues tend to be less stable than adult stem cells, there is a heightened risk of producing unwanted growths and cysts. In contrast, the Lozier Institute paper notes that adult stem cells have performed with preliminary success in easing Parkinson’s symptoms.
The paper indicates that various other conditions have also responded to other treatments where fetal tissue transplantation was unsuccessful. In fact, for each item in the list mentioned on Planned Parenthood’s donation consent form, there is a corresponding failed study. One of the earliest recorded fetal tissue transplantations was a failed attempt to cure cancer in Italy in 1928. Attempts to use fetal pancreatic tissue to treat diabetes in the United States failed in 1939 and 1959, and in large-scale trials in the Soviet Union and China between 1970 and 1991. Adult stem cell transplants, on the other hand, have demonstrated some success in improving diabetes symptoms. Adult stem cells have also succeeded in treating anemias and immunodeficiencies where fetal tissue has failed.10
One of the few current clinical studies using fetal tissue that seems somewhat successful is the transplantation of fetal neural retina tissue onto the eye of patients with blindness or failing eyesight, specifically those with retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration. Even there, positive results are described merely as “new visual sensation,” rather than a breakthrough improvement that shows that fetal tissue is superior to other treatments currently being researched.
Beyond the either exaggerated or misstated success researchers may have achieved in the development of life-saving therapies through the use of tissue from human infants, the more misleading claim is that such research is “indispensqble” or “critical”, particularly since there are many alternative treatment options from adult stem cells that are just as, if not more, promising.
Every time the media praise the so-called “life-saving” research accomplished with aborted fetal tissue, they imply that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers that donate tissue are performing an invaluable service to the world—that the abortion facilities are fulfilling a noble function, without which lives would not be saved and cures would not be obtained.
Perhaps the defenders of Planned Parenthood cling to that prospect of doing something good as a salve for a guilty conscience. However, when viewed in the larger context of specific research studies, Planned Parenthood’s marketing technique of claiming to save lives with those it takes away is as factually inaccurate as it is morally repugnant.