Meeting of the Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Panel
National Institutes of Health
September 14, 1988
My name is Richard Doerflinger. I am Associate Director for Policy Development in the Office for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Conference represents the policies and interests of the Catholic bishops of the United States on a broad range of issues, including those which regard the dignity of human life.
We maintain that the unborn child must be treated with all the respect due to any other human being. Certain conclusions flow from this conviction: Vital organs may not be removed until after the death of the donor is certain beyond a reasonable doubt; they should not be subjected to commercial trafficking; there must be no complicity with those who have unjustly caused the death of the donor; and moral scandal must be avoided. These and other concerns regarding treatment of defenseless human life have been expressed in documents such as the Vatican's 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.
On problem requiring further study, even aside from the issue of abortion, is that of reliably determining that the donor has died. As the June 1987 issue of Annals of Neurology has noted, there is no medical consensus on standards for determining "brain death" in newborn infants less than a week old, because infants' brains are much more resilient than those of adults and so more capable of regaining functions after a period of inactivity. The resiliency is even more apparent in the brain of the unborn, which is one reason why fetal brain cells are of such interest to transplant surgeons. The danger is that vital organs will be removed before it is certain that he donor has died; this would be an assault on the dying human being. Unfortunately the desired organs must be removed quickly to be useful; thus there is a great deal of pressure of physicians to adopt a loose standard for determining the death of the donor. When the donor is an unborn child classified by the U.S. Supreme Court as never having been a living person, such abuses can occur with impunity.
Of particular concern to us, however, is the use of organs obtained by means of abortion. The government must not be involved in programs that perform or encourage abortion as part of its efforts to obtain fetal organs. Taken in the abstract, it may not be wrong in principle for someone completely unconnected with an abortion to make use of a fetal organ from an unborn child who died as the result of an abortion. But in practice we do not see how arrangements to ensure informed consent and to obtain the tissues could be institutionalized without threatening a morally unacceptable collaboration with the abortion industry.
Researchers report that fetal organs become useless very quickly after an abortion unless someone is immediately available to prepare them for transplant; some even speak of the benefits of timing the abortion to take place at the optimum stage of fetal development, or at the optimum time for the transplant. Such arrangements would be morally unacceptable.
There may be alternatives to the use of tissues from abortion in many cases. Some physicians suggest that if fetal nerve tissues, for example, can be grown in culture, the tissue from on unfortunate miscarried child could ultimately provide enough material for many transplants. We claim no special competence to judge the feasibility of this, but it seems worthy of investigation. Such practices may raise problems of their own, including the risk of commercial trafficking in human tissues; but they would avoid the moral problems associated with complicity in abortion.
It is sometimes claimed that the morality of using tissues from abortion victims is completely separate from the morality of abortion itself. This claim is often not followed through with consistency by those who make it. For example, the public comment delivered earlier today by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists made this claim, but then proceeded to posit that abortion is morally justifiable as a key premise in its argument favoring the use of abortion victims' organs.
Moreover, ethicists on both sides of the abortion question have questioned this claim of a total separation between the two tissues. Philosopher David Fletcher of Wheaton College writes in the April issue of Moody Monthly: "The logic that permits open abortion on demand for whatever reason makes it seem arbitrary to object to this practice (that of using victims' bodies for transplants). If you accept abortion as easily as our culture does, then why not abortion and get some good out of it?"
I think Professor Fletcher overrates the acceptance of abortion by our society—for example, a November 1985 New York Times showed most Americans agreeing with the statement that abortion is "the same as murdering a child." But his conviction about the linkage between these issues is also endorsed by Jeffrey Prottas of Brandeis University in the February/March issue of the Hastings Center Report. In reviewing a book on fetal transplants by Peter McCullagh, Prottas criticizes the author for assuming that abortion is wrong and then bothering to write an entire book which argues that use of tissues from abortion victims is wrong. "If one rejects abortion because of the belief that fetuses are human beings with human rights," says Prottas, "little remains to be said about using fetal tissue for transplantation: the practice is simply wrong." He observes that this is all the more true if tissues from spontaneous abortion prove not to be usable, for then the practice of fetal transplants would depend for its very existence upon the continuing practice of abortion.
If these scholars are right, then indeed little remains to be said. As we understand it, the mandate of this panel is to recommend a policy on fetal transplants consistent with existing federal policies on related matters such as abortion. This Administration explicitly seeks to prohibit collaboration with abortion in its family planning programs, and its chief executive issued a proclamation in January declaring that all federal agencies are to treat the unborn with the respect due to human persons. In the present context this translates into the following proposition: One should no more seek consent from parents of abortion children for use of those children's tissues, or cooperate with physicians responsible for ending the lives of these children, than one would make such arrangements with those responsible for an innocent child's death after birth.
We realize the issue of complicity or collaboration with abortion is complex. But one of the most troubling aspects of this issue—and in Catholic morality this is relevant to the question of giving scandal—is the degree to which even passive acceptance of and collaboration with an evil can erode one's ability to continue to condemn that evil. Surely this is one concern among those who have criticized a Minnesota researcher's plans to make use of data from German hypothermia experiments of the 1940s. The fear of these critics is that by seeking to "draw good out of evil" in this instance we begin to lose our moral standing to condemn the Nazi project with the forcefulness it demands: "The death camps were bad," people might say, "but at least some good is coming out of them." My intent is not to equate this with our present controversy, but similar concerns could be raised. We would certainly oppose any collaboration with abortion practitioners that would undermine, or introduce ambivalence into, the Administration's opposition to this moral and social evil. Our concern regarding compromise proposals for limiting and regulating such collaboration is that once the basic act of collaboration is accepted, attempts to regulate it to prevent the most egregious abuses may only involve the Administration more deeply and intricately in the system of collaboration.
I thank you for your attention, and I would be glad to try to answer any questions.