BioEdge.org  March 12, 2016  by Xavier Symons

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Professor G. Kevin Donovan of Georgetown University testifying before the panel.

The US Senate Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives met for the first time last week, in a heated session that saw several experts testify against the procurement of fetal tissue for research. The panel was convened following the release of several videos apparently capturing Planned Parenthood employees negotiating the sale of tissue to private research firms.

Tensions on the panel were evident even before testimony began. Democrat and Republican representatives clashed over the subpoenaing of the names of researchers, technicians and medical personnel working in a select number of abortion clinics.

Referring to a shooting late last year at a clinic in Colorado, Democratic representative Jan Schakowsky said, “Linking individual’s names to an investigation that the Republicans describe as examining the ‘harvesting of baby body parts’ and the ‘horrific practices’ of abortion providers puts people in danger”. The chair of the committee, Republican Marsha Blackburn, replied that  the panel is “entitled to the information,” and a Democratic motion to quash the three subpoenas issued thus far was defeated on a party-line vote.

Bioethicists and scientists with a variety of perspectives appeared before the panel.

Professor G. Kevin Donovan of Georgetown’s Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics said  that tissue might be harvested from spontaneous miscarriages, thus avoiding the moral implications of using aborted fetuses. “If we cannot act with moral certainty regarding the appropriate respect and dignity of the fetus, we cannot morally justify its destruction. Alternatives clearly exist that are less controversial, and moral arguments exist that support our natural abhorrence at the trafficking of human fetal parts. Surely we can, and surely we must, find a better way.”

R. Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin, a well-known bioethicist, took a utilitarian line. Fetal tissue is necessary for life-saving research. Besides, she said, “Critics have overwhelmingly partaken of the vaccines and treatments derived from fetal tissue, and give no indication that they will foreswear further benefits. Fairness and reciprocity alone would suggest they should support the work, or at least, not thwart it.”

Lawrence Goldstein, a stell cell scientist from the University of California San Diego, was similarly pragmatic: “My message is simple,” he told the committee. “Fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern cutting edge medical research. These fetal tissues and cells cannot be replaced by embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed stem cells, or adult stem cells.”

One of the most interesting contributions came from Kathleen M. Schmainda, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, a radiologist. If fetal tissue were needed to cure a disease like Parkinson’s which afflicts a million Americans, three or four aborted babies might be needed for each patient.  “So, 4 million babies would need to be aborted to treat this one disease, not to mention the number needed to treat patients worldwide. Imagine the magnitude of the demand for fetuses to cure yet another disease like Alzheimer’s, which affects 44 million persons worldwide? Do we really want a world where the most vulnerable, those with no voice, are subject to the whims, desires and perceived needs of others? Clearly we will have created industrialized harvesting of preborn babies, a crime against the human race.”

The committee is expected to meet again in the coming months to hear from additional witnesses and enter newly obtained documents into the congressional record.

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