Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 12 November 2003


Prof. Chris Kaczor

CHRIS KACZOR teaches courses in philosophy in Loyola Marymount University, California. A widely published author, Professor Kaczor's writings focus on issues of great importance for Christian living.

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Copyright © 2001
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Prof. Chris Kaczor

Fetal Parts Research: Fight Against Diseases

Research on human fetal life involves numerous complex medical, moral, and legal aspects. It is not always easy, nor desirable, to seal off one aspect from another but my remarks today will focus on the moral aspects. The topic is a timely and important one because research on human fetal life is reportedly a growing industry and the subject of legal developments both in the United States and around the world.1

In this article, I would like to present arguments both for and against such research.The argument for fetal research is fairly straightforward. Because of the unique characteristics of cells from human beings in early stages of development, research on embryos and fetuses may provide key weapons in the fight against disease. Fetal tissue holds promise in treating Parkinson’s disease,2 in ending certain kinds of paralysis,3 in helping those with diabetes, MS,4 as well as in treating patients with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.5. Others have argued that fetal tissue holds promise for treatment of sickle cell anemia, leukemia, and AIDS.6 Fetal retinal transplants may be a promising treatment for some 100,000 Americans suffering from old age blindness.7

The fight against diseases, especially these serious diseases causing untold suffering for many people, must be continuous and heroic. Even though fetal research does not hold the certainty but only a possibility of cures for such diseases,8 such possibilities should be realized if one has the resources and there is no moral impediment to doing so. But that remains the question.

Is there a moral impediment to such research? Should the ethical question even be raised?

Suppose we could cure all diseases on earth and extend the human lifespan to a comfortable, active and fit 95 at which time a person would die peacefully in sleep.Or, perhaps even better, suppose we could drink a magic potion and live forever. But suppose further that in order to make the magic potion we would have to cannibalize a certain class of people, say teenage girls. Not all of them mind you, just a few dozen to keep the country going for the year.

Or to make the benefits even more appealing, let’s recall the story told by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

In this short story, the residents of the town Omelas live in perfect harmony. They enjoy a heavenly utopia of beauty, friendship, and vitality.But by some cosmic juxtaposition of Ying balancing Yang, the foundation of all their delirious joy is the suffering and indignity of small child who remains alone locked in a basement without light or visitors. The child looks six but is really ten and “is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day.It is naked.Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of fettered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.”

Le Guin writes:

They all know [the child] is there, all the people of Omelas.Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there.They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendship, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Le Guin paints in grim literary detail the chilling question asked in The Brothers Karamazov by Ivan to his brother Alyosha.

Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.9

Alyosha answers rightly. The story of Omelas and the question asked by Ivan Karamazov involve much greater benefits than fetal research ever could, even if all its potential breakthroughs were realized. Of course, I am not claiming that fetal research involves torturing young children, but clearly only the most crass utilitarian could ignore pressing moral questions simply by invoking the potential benefits of such research.

What are these moral questions?

When considering the ethics of fetal research, a number of different arguments can be used to show its morally problematic nature. Fetal research lends credibility to those who contemplate abortion and wish to rationalize their selfish action as in some way altruistic. Although abortion would not disappear were fetal research to end completely, still there may be some people whose ambivalence about abortion is tipped in favor of termination based on this factor. Although the law indicates that consent to donate the fetus must be secured only after the consent for the abortion has taken place, widespread knowledge of fetal research alters the cultural climate, even if only slightly, to be more favorable to abortion. This factor partially explains why the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood have been tireless advocates for such research.

Violation of Human Dignity

I want to focus on other morally problematic aspects of fetal research. The first is that fetal research as it is now carried out today in the United States violates the human dignity of the unborn through violating agreed upon principles governing organ donations generally. Secondly, the legal and moral restrictions imposed on fetal research not only have failed to secure ethical research but the nature of the research itself gives an incentive to morally problematic behavior.

Let me begin by simply laying out a few of my presuppositions. I believe these claims are rationally defensible though I will not be offering a defense of them now. First, there is at least one distinct human person existing from conception. Second, all human persons regardless of size, dependency, age, or condition are equal in human dignity and should be accorded respect. Needless to say there are many people who would not agree with one or both assumptions. There are radical disputes about whether each human life in the womb is truly to be considered a person.

However, Pope John Paul II reasons rightly that even the probability of the existence of a human person should lead to a clear prohibition of any experimentation. The possibility of error prompts one to err on the side of protection of human life.

Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?"

The Result of Human Procreation Deserves Unconditional Respect

Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. The Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life."10

If there is a possibility that someone is in a building scheduled to be demolished, one ought not proceed based on a doubt.If your target might be a hunter or a deer, you ought not to shoot until your doubt is resolved. Thus, disputes about the personhood of the unborn suggest that one ought to act as if the unborn human being is a person if there are doubts.Thus, the principles generally governing human transplantation and tissue use should thus also govern the use of tissue of unborn human life. What are these principles?

To Donate One's Body to Science

In order to “donate one’s body to science,” in the case of an adult there must be voluntary, informed consent or, in the case of a minor, informed consent from a parent. Thus, were a child to die in some tragic accident, it would be permissible for her parents to donate her organs to a needy person or to donate the body for legitimate scientific research. As long as the body is given due respect and not (as formerly sometimes happened with cremation) as a token of one’s disbelief in the resurrection of the body or hatred of the diseased, it is not wrong to use human corpses in a way that benefits others. In fact, it is laudable.

Tissue and Organ Donation

How would these widely accepted norms for tissue and organ donation apply in the case of fetal tissue research?Obviously in the case of the use of fetal tissue, a fetus cannot give consent to have his or her body donated to science, and so parental consent must be given. According to the law, parental consent indeed must be given; but a moral problem definitely remains.

The Source of Parental Rights

If the philosopher Immanuel Kant is to be believed,11 parental rights over their children arise because of parental duties. In procreating a child, parents incur duties to that child. The duties of parents to their child include looking after the child’s well-being and development until that child can exercise reason on his or her own. However, parents cannot exercise this duty over children unless they have rights to control and command the obedience of children. The limits of parental authority then are defined by what gives rise to parental authority, namely the duty to do good for the child. Thus parental authority never extends to a right to do anything whatsoever that is intentionally harmful to their children, e.g. sexual abuse, selling into slavery, killing, etc. For this same reason, a child may rightfully and indeed should disobey parental requests to do evil.Of course, such a determination could be difficult to make, and one hopes that such abuses of parental authority are few. In any case, parental authority over children derives from their duties to protect and nurture their children, and their authority over their children is circumscribed by these duties.

Thus, should a parent fail to care for a child in a sufficiently grave way, that parent’s rights to his or her child are morally, and also sometimes legally, terminated. The parent who grossly abuses his child has failed in his duty to that child and so no longer enjoys parental authority over that child. Clearly, intentionally killing one’s own offspring is a grave failure of a parent’s duty to care properly for that child. Thus, the parent, in having seriously failed in his or her parental duties, lacks any authority whatsoever over that child, and therefore over his or her remains. Thus, the moral right to decide about the child’s remains is terminated in the choice to abort the child. Legally, of course, the “right to choose” what happens to the child’s corpse still remains intact, reflecting once again the gross cleavage in the United States between the legal and moral spheres under current law.Nor can anyone else involved in the child’s death claim a moral right to dispose of the child’s remains.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation?

A reasonable objection might be made that fetal research makes the best of a bad situation. Under the current law in the United States, and even more importantly in the current cultural situation, abortions will take place. The numbers vary somewhat but each year in the U.S. we can expect well over one million of them.Forbidding fetal research would not eliminate abortion or make parents want, or at least not harm, their children. Why not bring some good out of something tragic?

Research On Aborted Fetuses

This objection appeals to a reasonable moral principle. If one cannot prevent evil, then one should try to minimize it or make the best of it. But the undertaking of fetal research without proper authorization is itself an evil insofar dishonors the remains of a human being. A human body, even a corpse, is not material that can be used at will. Abortion denies the humanity of the unborn in a grave way, but research on aborted fetuses denies humanity again. We would not consider the body of a six year old “donated to science” unless parental consent were given, even if such research would put a tragic event to a good use. Indeed, only a Dr. Frankenstein would illicitly take a corpse for research without proper permission because such a use violates the dignity of a human person whose remains should still be respected.

The Notion of Spare Embryos

Even if the embryo or fetus is not obtained from abortion, the other most common way of obtaining fetal tissue, namely “spare embryos” from IVF,is also problematic. Another danger of embryo experimentation and fetal tissue use consists in a dehumanization of unborn human life as so many “spare parts” for the use of others. Stem cells may be obtained from aborted fetuses, but they may also be obtained from “spare” human embryos from in vitro fertilization. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae notes that this dehumanization is one of the harmful side-effects of various artificial kinds of reproduction.

The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time. Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often greater than that needed for implantation in the woman's womb, and these so-called "spare embryos" are then destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple "biological material" to be freely disposed of.12 14

Thus, what seems to be in the services of life undermines the true value of the person. Such use of human being is akin to slavery.One person is used as if property, without proper consent to benefit another. Fetal research can lead to a commodification of human life, exemplified in its most chilling form by the auctioning of various human body parts for research. Such fetal research characteristically fails to respect the humanity of the fetus by using his or her body, even in death, simply as a means to an end.

Failure of Safeguards

The problematic nature of research on human fetal life has led critics as well as advocates of such research to agree to a series of guidelines for carrying out of such research. Many of these ethical guidelines have become encoded in the law.For instance, the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Statement on Human Experimentation and Supplementary Notes declares that “there should be no element of commerce involved in the transfer of human fetal tissue.”13 Federal law, the NIH [National Institute of Health] Revitalization Act of 1993, echoes the same injunction:“It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”14 In addition, the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) makes is a criminal offense “to knowingly acquire, receive or otherwise transfer any human organ” for valuable consideration, fetal body parts inclusive.15

Such restrictions undermine the arguments given by advocates of legalized abortion in so far as they only make sense if the humanity of the fetus is at least tacitly recognized. After all, very few would object morally or legally to the interstate transport of animal body parts or the selling of those parts for profit. Indeed, Albertson’s, Vons, and Ralph’s sell fish, poultry, and livestock that have been transported across state lines, and grocery stores sell these products for profit. Those who do not object to eating animals would probably not object to research done on animals in order to save human lives.If the unborn human being is really no more morally and legally significant than a “new born guppy” as Mary Anne Warren suggests,[16]then the restrictions on the sale and transport of fetal body parts should be precisely the same as those governing other animals. That almost everyone agrees to these restrictions is tacit agreement that almost everyone implicitly recognizes the humanity of the unborn.

"It is not really human"

Ironically, fetal tissue research itself undermines one of the most common arguments in favor of abortion. We are told: “It’s not really human.” However it is also argued that human fetal research must take place, and that one cannot substitute research on non-human animals, because cells from other kinds of animals react differently than human cells. The research is attempting to cure diseases in humans not lab rats.Of course, in this argument is the tacit admission that the fetus is indeed a human being. When arguing for abortion, the humanity of the fetus is forgotten; when arguing for fetal research, the necessity of using human fetuses is a necessary element.

A Clever Loophole

Unfortunately, these safeguards have not in fact prevented trafficking in human body parts.In fact, the legal safeguards are not as stringent as they might appear. In a clever loophole to these restrictions, President Clinton signed the National Institute of Health Revitalization Act of 1993 which allowed for: “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of fetal tissue.”17 This has led to a blackmarket, or perhaps due to this loophole a grey market, of selling fetal body parts. The chilling price chart used by Opening Lines: A Division of Consultative and Diagnostic Pathology, Inc. lists in callous detail the price for each fetal body part : Eyes (> 8 Weeks) $50, Intact Trunk (with/without limbs) $500, Lungs and Heart Block $150, Skin (> 12 Weeks) $100, ears for $75 a pair, arms or legs $150, a brain for $999, tax not included.

Voluntary Selling of Organs

Many ethicists agree that even voluntary selling of organs fails to respect the dignity of the human person. In the words of Leon R. Kass: “The idea of commodification of human flesh repels us, quite properly I would say, because we sense that the human body especially belongs in that category of things that defy or resist commensuration—like love or friendship or life itself. . . . We surpass all defensible limits of such conventional commodification when we contemplate making the convention-maker—the human being—just another one of the commensurables. The end comes to be treated as mere means.Selling our bodies, we come perilously close to selling out our souls.”18 If even voluntary selling of organs is morally wrong, obviously the selling of body parts of others who have not volunteered whether in slavery, prostitution, or otherwise is rightly considered the most odious of enterprises.

A Shop to Sell Organs

Since the larger and healthier “specimens” can command a higher market value, abortionists have a strong financial incentive to perform later term abortions that leave the fetus as intact as possible.According to some involved in the business, this incentive has led some to slide from abortion to infanticide. An actual interview with an individual whose identity here will be "Kelly" reveals some of the ghastly details.Imagine you are in an abortion clinic. Kelly is the wholesaler for the fetal tissue. She is the person who has to take this fetus and do what has to be done to it to get it to the supplier.

An abortionist walked into the lab carrying a steel pan. “Got you some good specimens. Twins,” he said.
The lab technician, Kelly, looked down at two perfectly formed 24-week-old babies. Except for a few nicks from the surgical tongs these babies were unharmed. In fact, Kelly recounts, “they were both alive...they were moving and gasping for air.”
“There is something wrong here,” Kelly protested. “They are moving. I can’t do this. That’s not in my contract.”
Kelly watched as the abortionist filled the pan with water until it covered the nose and mouth of each baby. At that point she left the room. “I would not watch those fetuses moving,” she recalls. “That is when I decided it was wrong.”
“Kelly,” the baby body parts harvester, says that this occasion, as well as several others, lead her to take her story to Life Dynamics Inc. (LDI), a pro-life group based in Texas. 19

Chilling Realities

One hopes such incidents are rare but the nature of fetal research as a high-profit business gives a powerful incentive to lawbreaking—including the federal regulation that the abortion procedure should not be in any way altered.20 In fact, this may be rather common. In the words of New Hampshire Congressman Christopher Smith:

Stop and think about this. If you do any of the other types of abortions--saline, digoxin, and these other procedures, D&E--what are you going to get? You are going to get something that is going to be an abnormality. No abnormal donors. Within 10 minutes, we want it on ice.The point I am trying to make is, there are only two ways you can get a baby, a fetus, on ice that quickly. One is a live birth; you instantly kill it. Another is partial-birth. If there is another method, I am open-minded. I would like to hear about it. . . . Fresh, wet ice, no known abnormalities; get it on the ice. How do you get a fetus that is not chopped up, that is not poisoned? There are only two places. I talked to you about both of them: Live births, partial births.21

These are chilling realities that we must be unafraid to face. The truth can be ugly.

Circumstances That May Justify Fetal Research

Fetal research, in my opinion, could be morally justified in some circumstances. Let us say that a woman has a spontaneous miscarriage and the husband and wife decide that they will donate the unfortunate child’s body to science. Although other factors might alter the scenario, this may not be intrinsically evil. However, the present circumstances in the United States and Europe depart grossly from such a scenario. The researchers according to their own specifications want “fresh” human corpses with no abnormalities. This is not often the case in spontaneous miscarriage. Thus, the only realistic supply of fetal tissue available is from aborted babies.In the present situation, abortion and fetal tissue research are inescapably linked. Although all of us want cures for diseases, means to finding cures in this case may come with a medicine too bitter to swallow.It is a shallow happiness that is built on inhumanity to man.


[1] See, for instance, “The Unborn as Raw Material for Research:Use of Human Embryos and Fetal Tissue Seems to be Rising” PARIS, DEC. 9, 2000, ZE00120921 (; “Fetal Tissue Research Ban Ruled Illegal” San Jose Mercury News; Saturday, December 30, 2000.

[2]Rachel B. Gold and Dorothy Lehrman, "Fetal Research Under Fire: The Influence of Abortion Politics," Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 21, no.1 (Jan./Feb. 1989): 7; The National Parkinson Foundation, Inc., "What the Patient Should Know," (2/18/00); Carl T. Hall, "Solving the Parkinson’s Puzzle: Scientists Report Promising Results in Research to Help Cure Disease," San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 31, 2000, A6.

[3]Warren E. Leary, "Fetal Tissue Injected Into Injured Spinal Cord," New York Times, July 12, 1997; Sally Squires, "Spinal Cord Repair Research Yields Results," Washington Post, Sept. 22, 1992, Z06; Gold and Lehrman, "Fetal Research Under Fire," 7.

[4]Joan I. Samuelson, "Tissue Transplant Field Gaining Rapid Sophistication, Experts Say," The Action Reporter (Parkinson’s Action Network), vol. 8, no. 1 (Apr. 1997): 2.

[5]James E. Goddard, "The NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 Washed Away Many Legal Problems with Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research But a Stain Remains," Southern Methodist University Law Review, vol. 49 (Jan./Feb.1996): 375, 378; Nikki Melina Constantine Bell, "Regulating Transfer and Use of Fetal Tissue in Transplantation Procedures: The Ethical Dimensions," American Journal of Law & Medicine, vol. 20 (1994): 277, 278; Gold and Lehrman, "Fetal Research Under Fire," 7.

[6]Jennifer Rothacker, "Marrow From Fetuses Effective in Transplants," Austin American- Statesman, May 4, 1997, A7

[7]Brenda Warner Rotzoll, "Abortion Foes Blast Use of Fetal Tissue," Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 2, 1997, 10; "Fetal Retinal Cells Transplanted in Search for Eye Disease Cure," Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1997; Dick Kaukas, "Doctor Tries to Reverse Eye Ailment: Fetal Tissue Tested to Treat Blinding Disease," Louisville Courier-Journal, May 13, 1999, 1B; Richard A. Knox, "Fetal Tissue Reported to Aid Sight," Boston Globe, Nov. 18, 1996, C1.

[8] Some have questioned whether fetal research is as promising as is often claimed.See, Michael Fumento, “Fetal Attraction” The American Spectator (July 1992).

[9] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.(London:Norton & Co, 1976) 226.

[10]John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 60.

[11] Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge, 1991) 99 et passim.

[12] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 14.

[13]National Health and Medical Research Council’s Statement on Human Experimentation and Supplementary Notes, note 5, 11.3.

[14] 42 U.S.C.A. § 289g-2 (a).

[15] 42 U.S.C.A. § 274e (b).

[16] Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” Intervention and Reflection:Basic Issues in Medical Ethics 5th ed. Ed. Ronald Munson (Boston:Wadsworth Publishing, 1996) 87.

[17] 42 U.S.C.A. § 289g-2 (d) (3).

[18] Leon R. Kass, “Organs for Sale?Propriety, Property, and the Price of Progress” Intervention and Reflection:Basic Issues in Medical Ethics 5th ed. Ed. Ronald Munson (Boston:Wadsworth Publishing, 1996) 591; see also, Michael Kinsley, “Take My Kidney, Please” Intervention and Reflection:Basic Issues in Medical Ethics 5th ed. Ed. Ronald Munson (Boston:Wadsworth Publishing, 1996) 587-88.


[20]42 U.S.C.A. § 289g-1(b)(2)(A)(ii).

[21] Senator Robert Smith's Statement Before the United States Senate (October 20, 1999)


Chris Kaczor, Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
One LMU Drive, Suite 3600
Los Angeles, CA 90045-8415