The serial release of undercover videos of Planned Parenthood staff outlining the organization’s role in procuring fetal body parts for research laboratories has elicited well-deserved outrage and condemnation. The vocabulary of our visceral response to this exposé includes words like “barbarity“, “gruesome” and “heinous”. This revelation has prompted an investigation into Planned Parenthood’s alleged practices of selling fetal remains as well as a renewed call to remove state financial support for Planned Parenthood clinics.
These are all appropriate and understandable responses to the videos. However, it is also important that we move past our initial emotional reaction and clearly delineate our objections. It is currently illegal to trade in human tissue. Planned Parenthood claims that it is not selling fetal remains, but rather recovering its cost for facilitating the donation of these remains for scientific research. This assertion is certainly suspect and deserves a thorough investigation by the appropriate state authorities. Yet the primary objection to the practice of using tissue from aborted fetuses go beyond the legal status of this act and stems from its immorality.
No one should be surprised that a trade in fetal body parts exists. Dr. Stacy Transancos, in response to the recently released videos, published a series of articles outlining the unambiguous references in scientific papers to the use of fetal tissue in research. It has been going on for decades. This fetal tissue had to come from somewhere, and most likely it was from aborted fetuses. Celebrity Sarah Silverman distills the support for this with her Twitter message that it would be “insane” not to use the fetal remains of abortion for the greater good of science and education. Her utilitarian ethos decries the waste of perfectly good fetal tissue.
But there is the rub. Organs and tissue obtained from aborted fetuses are not “perfectly good”. We need to apply the same moral principles to the use of fetal tissue for scientific research that we apply to other uses of human organs and tissue for either transplantation or research. The fact that the tissue proffered by Planned Parenthood was obtained by the intrinsically evil act of abortion renders this tissue morally unsuitable for medical and scientific purposes. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services explicitly forbids the use of fetal tissue obtained from direct abortions for either research or therapeutic purposes. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document, Donum Vitae, also directly addresses this:
The corpses of human embryos and foetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided. Also, in the case of dead foetuses, as for the corpses of adult persons, all commercial trafficking must be considered illicit and should be prohibited.
At this point it is important to clarify that the scientific and medical use of human tissue, including that of unborn human beings, is not intrinsically wrong. The Church encourages organ and tissue donation when it is done according to strict moral standards. These standards include obtaining full informed consent from the donor or his surrogate and only accepting organs and tissue if such a donation will not severely impair or fatally harm the donor. Fetal tissue obtained after a miscarriage or stillbirth and donated with the full consent of the parents offers no moral impediment to its use. It is similar to a family donating the organs and tissue of a deceased loved one.
On the other hand, we do not remove vital organs from living donors if such an act would cause the demise of the donor. It is morally permissible for a living donor to donate one kidney but not both. One cannot justify the evil act of taking an organ donor’s life by the good obtained from the organ donation.
Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue fails the tests for ethical donation on several fronts. First, and foremost, as stated above, the act of abortion is itself intrinsically evil. It takes the life of an innocent human being with total disregard for the sanctity of this life and intrinsic human dignity. Anyone who encourages abortion in order to obtain fetal tissue is guilty of formal cooperation with this evil. Those who may not actively encourage abortion but do no hesitate to make use of organs and tissue from aborted fetuses commodify the human body and are, at a minimum, guilty of material cooperation with this evil. This alone is enough to justify the outrage evoked by the undercover Planned Parenthood videos.
Yet another morally inadequate aspect of this tissue donation is consent. Did Planned Parenthood tell the pregnant women who signed consent forms releasing the bodies of their aborted children for “donation” what this process truly entails? Were the fetal remains euphemistically described as “products of conception” or were these women accurately told that their unborn children had fully formed livers, hearts, and kidneys that were highly prized by research labs? Were they informed that the abortion procedure would be altered—their unborn child would be crushed here instead of there—to fulfill the tissue procurement company’s wish list?
The immorality of using aborted fetuses for medical research is based on far more than our visceral response to graphic pictures, the blatant commercialization of fetal body parts, and the overt callousness of Planned Parenthood staff. The current outrage can only be sustained if we understand the moral principles that underlie our revulsion. In order to persuade others and effect both a cultural and legal change that protects unborn children we must be able to rationally, calmly, and clearly articulate our moral objections.