March 5, 2024

Aborted tissue: waste not, want not, say British scientists

Is this an idea whose time has come?

Professor Richard GardnerIt’s a shame to waste the organs of aborted babies, two British scientists
have argued. Given the lengthening lists of people awaiting a kidney, Professor
Sir Richard Gardner, an Oxford University stem cell expert, says that tissue
from aborted foetuses may be a more realistic fix than transplants from adults.
And Professor Stuart Campbell, a leading London obstetrician, said that he had
no ethical objections. Many babies were aborted quite late, he told the London
Daily Mail "and if they are going to be terminated, it is a shame to waste their
organs". He added: "I am sure very few of those on the transplant list would
rather die than accept an organ from an aborted foetus."

This could be an idea whose time has come, at least in the UK. Sir Richard,
who is an advisor to Britain’s fertility watchdog and the Royal Society, said he
was surprised the possibility had not already been considered. He claimed that
experiments in mice have shown that foetal kidneys grow extremely quickly when
transplanted to adult animals.

Taking his cue from the British scientists’ remarks, American bioethics
writers quickly picked up on the idea. William Saletan, a columnist for the
on-line magazine Slate, observed that if embryos could be sacrificed for their
tissues, the next logical step was aborted foetuses. And Jacob Appel, a fringe
bioethicist writing in the Huffington Post (not a peer-reviewed journal by any
means), contended that the time has come to debate a market in foetal tissue and

Commercialising aborted tissue has many advantages, Mr Appel believes. Supply
is virtually unlimited; no damage is sustained by the donor, or rather, the
mother of the donor; and it could lead to "significant public health benefits".

Although it would inevitably lead to women turning abortions into a revenue
stream, Appel believes that there is a moral imperative to give women this
option. "We have a moral duty to women to give due consideration to the
legalization of such a fetal-organ trade. Society should not curtail a woman’s
economic liberty without a compelling reason any more than it should curtail her
reproductive liberty."

As Wesley Smith points out in his blog Secondhand Smoke, Mr Appel’s proposal
may not be entirely serious. Although he is a Harvard Law School graduate, a
qualified lawyer, and a writer for various bioethics journals, he also is a
professional writer of horror fiction. He may be burnishing a reputation for
smashing taboos (including bestiality – see below). However, the coverage given
to the idea shows that more serious proposals may not be far behind.

In fact, British scientists are already quietly using aborted foetal tissue,
according to Professor Naomi Pfeffer, of London Metropolitan University. She is
investigating how women feel about this. Writing in BioNews, a
British newsletter, she says "A well-kept secret is that many stem cell
scientists use aborted fetuses in their research. Scientists and policy makers
tend to shy away from drawing the public’s attention to this because abortion
and aborted fetuses are political minefields." ~ Huffington
Post, Mar 17
; Slate, Mar