If harvesting embryos is OK, how about fetuses?

Science, technology, and life.
March 13 2009 8:51 AM

Drill Babies, Drill

If harvesting embryos is OK, how about fetuses?

Fetus.
A fetus

Earlier this week, when President Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos, I said the moral dilemmas in this field would become increasingly difficult.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Buckle up. We're on our way. Last week, the Oxford International Biomedical Centre held a symposium on "New Body Parts for Old: Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine." At the symposium, Oxford professor Richard Gardner delivered a talk titled "Stem Cells: What They Are and Why They Are Important." According to London's Daily Mail, Gardner told the audience that kidney and liver tissue from aborted fetuses offer "at least a temporary solution" to the shortage of available organs for people in need of transplants.

Calling for studies into the feasibility of transplanting foetal organs, Sir Richard, an advisor to Britain's fertility watchdog and the Royal Society, said he was surprised the possibility had not been considered, and that experiments in mice have shown that foetal kidneys grow extremely quickly when transplanted to adult animals. Sir Richard said: "It is probably a more realistic technique in dealing with the shortage of kidney donors than others."

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Two arguments have persuaded the United States to fund stem-cell research using destroyed embryos. One is that the research will save lives. The other is that the embryos, left over from fertility treatments, will otherwise be wasted.

Both arguments are now being applied to fetuses. The Daily Mail notes:

Almost 7,000 of the 8,000 Britons waiting for a transplant need a kidney. More than 300 are hoping for a liver, 222 need lungs and almost 100 have requested a heart. Kidney donors have a less than one-in-three chance of receiving an organ in any given year, and hundreds on the transplant list will die before a donor becomes available.

Furthermore:

Professor Stuart Campbell, who has argued for the abortion time limit to be lowered, had no ethical objections to the proposal. He said many babies were aborted quite late, "and if they are going to be terminated, it is a shame to waste their organs."

The argument against fetal tissue is that because it's less fundamental and less pliable than embryonic stem cells, it's less useful for research. But in some ways, its advanced development makes it more logical as a source of transplants. As Gardner pointed out, our prospects for engineering completely functional organs from stem cells are "remote." And if stem cells do prove useful in this endeavor, fetuses may still be crucial. Four days ago, Art Caplan, a leading bioethicist who supports Obama's stem-cell policy, observed:

No one … knows what the best source of stem cells will be for treating diabetes, spinal cord injuries or cardiac damage from heart attacks. No actual scientist can say with any degree of certainty whether it will be embryonic, fetal, adult, cloned or induced stem cells—those made by modifying adult stem cells so that they act like embryos—that will prove most effective. It will take a lot of money and at least five to 10 years to find out.

From this uncertainty, Caplan concluded that "embryonic stem cell research ought to be generously funded and aggressively pursued."

Why isn't the same true of research on fetuses?

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. In praise of female condoms. 2. More on Obama and stem cells. 3. Bad news about smokeless tobacco.)

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