The Ethics of Human Fetal Tissue Research: An Evangelical Approach

 

Pro-life advocacy has become a defining trait of conservative evangelicalism. From theological instruction to social activism, the sanctity of human life is a doctrine at the core of evangelical faith and ethics. But if one were to pose a question about fetal tissue research (FTR) to a room full of evangelicals, one would most likely receive only blank stares in response. Though the subject of human FTR is a significant moral issue in American life, it is one that evangelicals, along with the majority of Americans, have largely ignored. The reality is that evangelical social teaching has much to say about the ethics of human FTR.

A Pro-Life Ethic

The concept of human dignity stands at the foundation of evangelical social teaching. For evangelicals, the sanctity of human life is predicated upon the theological doctrine of the imago Dei. In the first chapter of the Christian Scriptures, the Bible teaches that God created human beings in “the image of God.” In fact, Genesis 1:27 describes it this way: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV). The doctrine of the imago Dei, therefore, holds that because every person bears the divine image, every person possesses a fundamental, inviolable dignity. And this is true of every human being, at every stage of life.

Though theologians have long debated the precise nature of bearing God’s image and likeness, Christians have always affirmed that image-bearing is a characteristic of every human life. In other words, no person is excluded from bearing God’s image—whether old or young, healthy or sick, rich or poor. This includes preborn humans. The book of Psalms, for example, clearly and repeatedly speaks to the fact that people possess the features of personhood in the womb (Ps 17:14, 22:9; 71:6, 139:13). This is why evangelicals have been so active in the pro-life movement. Evangelicals oppose abortion not out of any sort of opposition to personal liberty or autonomy, but because they are convinced that abortion is nothing less than a fatal assault upon another human being’s personhood. To put it succinctly, evangelicals oppose abortion because they believe in the dignity of every human being.

Defining Human Fetal Tissue

Evangelicals should approach the subject of human FTR through the lens of human dignity. Though the issue is admittedly more obscure, the same moral and theological framework must be applied to this area of medical research as would apply to abortion.

Any ethical consideration one might give to this subject should begin with a definition. Human fetal tissue, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “is defined as tissue or cells obtained from a dead human embryo or fetus after a spontaneous or induced abortion or stillbirth.”[1] To offer additional clarity, it should be noted that fetal tissue can only be obtained or harvested in the event of a terminated pregnancy. This can happen either from induced (elective) abortions or from miscarriages (sometimes referred to as “natural” abortions).

Because evangelicals strongly oppose elective abortions, they must also strongly oppose the harvesting of fetal tissue—even for research purposes—after an elective abortion. Scriptural teaching concerning the dignity of every human life prohibits Christians from participating in or approving of any act for which a person would become complicit in supporting or benefiting from an elective abortion. And given this reality, evangelicals will naturally oppose any research efforts predicated upon tissue harvested in such a manner. But concerning the possibility of harvesting tissue from children who die in the womb as a result of miscarriage, additional questions must be addressed.

Fetal Tissue Research

The best-known medical achievement utilizing human fetal cells was the creation of an effective vaccine for polio, which took place in the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, fetal cells have been utilized to create additional vaccines including the rubella vaccine, to study and treat viral infections including HIV/AIDS, and to study possible treatments for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Additionally, fetal cells are used to study a number of hereditary and developmental issues such as retinal function, spinal cord injuries, and anomalous fetal development. Scientists and researchers argue fetal cells have a superior utility to adult cells because fetal cells are able to replicate quickly and transform into other types of cells.[2]

To date, human fetal tissue has been used in thousands of medical research projects. And in the United States, research based on fetal tissue has received considerable financial support from the federal government since the 1950s.[3] To cite data from a recent year, in 2018 the NIH provided funding for 200 such projects involving fetal tissue at a total cost of $115 million. But that same year, the Trump Administration began to take steps to curtail NIH funding for research involving fetal tissue after questions arose about the ethics of the procurement process. Prior to the Biden Administration’s changes, researchers employed directly by NIH were prohibited from utilizing fetal cells in their research while outside researchers receiving NIH funding were under significant restrictions concerning the use of fetal cells.[4]

Ethics and Regulation

The American Medical Association (AMA) has put forward simple ethical guidance for the regulation of FTR.[5] Noting the significant scientific value of fetal cells, the AMA commends the use of fetal cells in medical research efforts. Not only this, but the AMA assumes in its ethical guidance that fetal tissue will be harvested from fetuses who died as a result of elective abortions.

In its guidance, the AMA suggests five principles for the ethical procurement of fetal tissue. In summary, the principles suggest:

  1. the mother should not be paid in exchange for fetal tissue;
  2. the mother’s voluntary, informed consent must be obtained;
  3. the mother’s decision to abort must not be based upon the donation of fetal tissue, nor should the method of abortion jeopardize the mother’s health in order to optimize the harvested tissue;
  4. the mother may not designate the recipient, and the recipient must also give voluntary, informed consent; and
  5. the personnel involved in the procedure may not benefit personally from the termination of the pregnancy nor the harvesting of fetal tissue.[6]

Finally, it should be noted that the AMA offers this guidance in light of a number of known ethical concerns surrounding the harvesting of fetal tissues, including “the degree to which a woman’s decision to have an abortion might be influenced by the opportunity to donate fetal tissue” and the “potential conflict of interest when there is possible financial benefit to those who are involved in the retrieval, storage, testing, preparation, and delivery of fetal tissues.”[7]

Prior to 2015, few people outside of the scientific community would have given much thought to these ethical concerns about the procurement of fetal tissue. But in July of that year, an investigation conducted by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) yielded a series of videos exposing deeply troubling practices from Planned Parenthood—the nation’s largest abortion provider.[8] Specifically, the videos appear to capture representatives from Planned Parenthood discussing the financial incentives of harvesting fetal tissue as well as testimony confirming that the priority of successfully procuring tissue influenced the abortion techniques employed, which is explicitly prohibited by the AMA’s guidance.

But beyond demonstrating violations of medical ethics, the videos released by the CMP raised significant awareness about the dangers of FTR. Commenting on the practice of harvesting fetal tissue, theologian Russell Moore stated, “The bodies of children are not resources to be harvested.”[9] And this is the entire point; even using the language of “fetal tissue research” obscures the issue at hand. A fetus is a person. To obtain fetal tissue is to obtain the bodies or parts of preborn human beings. It is perverse to think of any person or industry profiting from the death of innocent human lives in such a manner. But if anything, the videos released by the CMP demonstrated that some people are all too willing to do so.

Christian Ethics and Fetal Tissue Research

Evangelicals recognize the complexity of this issue. The medical advances made possible through FTR have not only saved countless lives but have also dramatically improved the lives of an untold number of people. Even so, there is no morally justifiable reason for accepting the willful destruction of innocent lives. Nor is there a morally justifiable reason for benefiting from their deaths, including for the sake of medical or scientific progress. Evangelicals will continue to oppose elective abortions for both theological and practical reasons. And in the same way, they should oppose the harvesting of fetal tissue following elective abortions.

However, the same is not true following a miscarriage. In terms of Christian ethics, evangelicals may view the harvesting of fetal tissue following a miscarriage in the same way they approach organ donation. In such cases, the death of the child in the womb was not intentional, and choosing to allow fetal cells to be utilized to potentially alleviate the suffering of others is not a matter of right or wrong but of prudence and individual conscience. This does not obligate the parents of children who die through miscarriage to consent to fetal tissue donation, but there are no explicit ethical considerations that would prevent them from doing so—provided that all of the appropriate medical and ethical protocols are observed.

Conclusion

Evangelicals believe that elective abortions are immoral because they end not a potential life, but the actual existence of another human being. Even those who reject this view should recognize that the government has a direct and compelling reason to prevent the harvesting of fetal tissue from elective abortions. Harvesting fetal tissue from elective abortions creates a perverse incentive both for increasing the number of abortions performed and jeopardizing the safety of pregnant women for the sake of tissue and organ procurement. And for this reason, evangelicals recognize the inherent danger in this line of medical research.

Indeed, the promise of medical breakthroughs will always prove alluring, even when it requires actions that are morally suspect. This is the reason an objective moral standard is required. At its root, the Christian moral tradition is committed to the fundamental dignity of every human life. Whatever positive results FTR may yield, none are worth the moral cost of incentivizing the destruction of human lives—lives that not only possess a fundamental and inviolable dignity but bear the image and likeness of God. While medical researchers and government officials should be encouraged to proceed with further scientific inquiries utilizing fetal tissue harvested from natural miscarriages, they must do even this with the greatest caution. Human life is precious, and there is no excuse for destroying the humanity of children in the womb for the sake of potentially alleviating suffering in the future.

 

References


[1] National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research, “NIH Grants Policy Statement,” NIH, December 2021, https://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps/html5/section_4/4.1.14_human_fetal_tissue_research.htm.

[2] Meredith Wadman “The Truth about Fetal Tissue Research,” Nature 528 (2015):178–81, https://doi.org/10.1038/528178a.

[3] Kavya Sekar et al., “Human Fetal Tissue Research: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service R44129, version 8, August 8, 2019, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R44129.pdf.

[4] See Prentice’s essay in this report on regulations of fetal tissue research in the United States for the status on NIH funding.

[5] American Medical Association, “Research Using Human Fetal Tissue,” in AMA Code of Medical Ethics, Opinion 7.3.5, accessed February 16, 2022, https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/research-using-human-fetal-tissue.

[6] AMA, “Research Using Human Fetal Tissue.”

[7] AMA, “Research Using Human Fetal Tissue.”

[8] “Planned Parenthood Undercover Videos,” Alliance Defending Freedom, accessed February 16, 2022, https://adflegal.org/issues/sanctity-of-life/planned-parenthood-the-whole-story/planned-parenthood-undercover-videos.

[9] ERLC Staff, “Explainer: Federal Government Creates Ethics Advisory Board for Human Fetal Tissue Research,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, March 3, 2020, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-federal-government-creates-ethics-advisory-board-for-human-fetal-tissue-research/.