Women, fetuses and stem cell science: a pro-choice dilemma
Is there a difference between a fetus outside a woman’s uterus as a result of a miscarriage or an intentional abortion? The answer to this question is important because some stem cell scientists view tissue of aborted fetuses as the right tool for the job in their laboratory.
Indeed, tissue derived from an aborted fetus was used by John Gearhart to create one of the first stem cell lines, and stem cell therapeutic products derived from an aborted fetus are closer to the market than products derived from other human sources including pre-implantation embryos. However, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) takes the opposite view to that of scientists. In Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), published in December 2008, it ruled that only tissue of miscarried fetuses are eligible for use in research.
Scientists’ preference is based on biological evidence: tissue of an elective aborted fetus is likely to be healthier and stand a better chance of ‘working’ than tissue from a miscarried one. The Catholic Church takes the means by which the fetus arrives ex utero as its criteria of eligibility. Hence abortion, which it opposes, taints fetal tissue and makes it ineligible in the stem cell laboratory, whereas tissue from miscarriage, a ‘natural’ process, makes fetuses eligible. A stem cell product derived from a miscarried fetus would not pose any moral dilemma for a Catholic patient as currently happens in relation to vaccines associated with cell lines created out of aborted fetal tissue.
What women say about fetuses
Neither scientists nor the Catholic Church take into account women’s views on fetuses which, according to my research are complex and at odds with theirs. British women who suffer miscarriage, especially if it happens when the pregnancy is relatively advanced, said they want the fetus to be treated and disposed of with respect, which might involve burial or cremation, a demand that has been acknowledged following a campaign. Some said they would be prepared to agree to the fetus being used in research which could have some bearing on causes and prevention of miscarriage. None said they would be willing to agree to the miscarried fetus being used in non-therapeutic research, such as stem cell research.
The reason why women who have suffered a miscarriage are loath to agree to the fetus being used in non-therapeutic research is they have established an emotional attachment to it; the fetus had been welcome, had a nascent biography, and could not be treated as a means to scientific ends however promising. Nowadays maternal responsibility begins early, when the fetus is in utero (and some might argue before conception). The purpose of elective abortion is to relieve women of the burden of this unwanted responsibility but my research found women do not always relinquish it immediately or easily. When British women who had undergone an abortion were asked the question, ‘would you have been prepared to agree to the fetus being used in stem cell research?’, their initial response was ‘yes’, because it might allow something beneficial to emerge out of a negative experience (a view offered by stem cell scientists who use fetal tissue). However, on reflection, the women became less willing, largely because they were uncertain what might be done to the fetus in the stem cell laboratory, and were loath to agree to procedures which might involve suffering.
How should women be involved?
Women’s ignorance about what goes on in the stem cell laboratory is not surprising: information is routinely withheld from them as a result of successful lobbying of policy makers by anti-abortionists who insist that women who agree to an abortion lose the right of informed consent accorded to other patients. Loss of the right of informed consent is a moral punishment. This state of affairs has persisted for more than two decades because scientists fearful of attack are reluctant to draw the public’s attention to their dependence on abortion as a source of research material, and because British policy makers want to avoid providing a platform for a challenge to the current law on abortion. Challenging the status quo in favour of pro-choice women might then be risky.
|Author :||Naomi Pfeffer
London Metropolitan University
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N Pfeffer (2009) How work transforms an ‘unwanted pregnancy’ into a source of stem cells’ Sociology of Health & Illness, on-line early view.