It’s Unethical to Use Fetal Tissue in COVID-19 Research

The use of fetal tissue from aborted human beings in medical research predicates the health of some on the deliberate destruction of the lives and health of others. That predication is incompatible with the fundamental commitments of medicine. In the face of this global crisis, we must hold to our ethical principles more firmly than ever.

In June 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the federal government would adopt a new approach to research that used fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. Intramural research projects using such tissue—i.e., those conducted by the National Institutes of Health—would be discontinued. Funded extramural projects already underway would be allowed to continue through their grant periods, but new extramural projects would need to be considered by an ethics advisory panel to determine “whether, in light of the ethical considerations, NIH should fund the research project.” HHS identified the Trump administration’s core concern: “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.”

That ethics advisory panel has yet to be convened. For now, no new extramural research is being funded by the NIH that involves fetal tissue from elective abortions. This is an important success for the pro-life cause.

In at least one prominent case, however, the new policy has restricted active research on a project of relevance to our current COVID-19 health crisis: researcher Kim Hasenkrug has sought permission to pursue research on “humanized mice,” mice whose lungs have been made “human-like” using tissue obtained from aborted human fetuses. This research could be helpful in generating therapies for COVID-19 patients.

The response has been predictable. A number of Democrats have sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, which states:

Because of your restrictions, NIH is unable to utilize human fetal tissue to develop animal models of COVID-19 that can test potential vaccines and treatments to decelerate or even end this global health crisis. This inaction may ultimately put Americans further at risk of disease or death from COVID-19.

And, in turn, a number of Republican members of the House and Senate have issued statements of support for the new policy and urged the administration not to ease restrictions. Religious leaders have likewise weighed in. The chairmen of four committees of bishops, along with other ethicists, sent a letter to the head of the Food and Drug Administration, urging that the FDA ensure that any developing vaccine for COVID-19 be “free from any connection to abortion.”

The administration has the right policy. It is important to avoid three mistaken framings of this controversy, which I will here identify.

Science vs. Religion

Controversy over fetal tissue research, particularly when that research comes from elective abortions, has long been framed as an issue that pits religion against science. This framing presupposes a view of religion as opposed to reason, and it assumes that objections to abortion are fundamentally based in religion. In truth, the humanity of the unborn child is clearly established by science. Reason tells us that we must treat like cases alike, affording moral protection against killing at will to all human beings.

Still, the more specific ethical objections to using fetal tissue in important research are worth identifying. For one might object that the evil deed is done, and now there is the opportunity to at least make some good of a bad business.

This effort to bring good from bad, however, is precisely the point of moral concern. Consider two worries. One concerns expected outcomes: suppose that research on or using aborted human remains really did bring about significant health advances. (That such research has done so is, however, a highly disputed claim.) Is it unreasonable to fear that this would improve the reputation of the abortion industry?—and that this enhanced prestige and esteem would motivate medical professionals of various sorts to participate in the practice of abortion? The truth is that abortion is an ugly business, the purpose of which is the killing of unborn human beings; we should not varnish that truth with the patina of respectability that comes with saving life.

A second concern involves fairness. Every human being should reasonably be able to expect that incentives for his or her death will not be created, and that the motivation for contributing to his or her survival will not be diminished. But were a class of human beings to be designated as available not just to be killed at will for individual benefit, but then to have their physical remains used, without their consent, for the benefit of society, this would surely be contrary to that reasonable expectation, and thus to fairness. It is bad enough that unborn human beings are killed at will; we should not worsen the offense by creating a social benefit from it.

So there are good reasons in ethics, a matter of reason and not faith, to put the brakes on federal funding for research that involves the remains of aborted human beings, if not to halt it altogether.

Ethics vs. Science

But this moral truth runs the risk of provoking a different framing error: that now ethics is being opposed to the imperatives of scientific progress. As The New York Times once put it in regard to President George W. Bush’s embryonic stem cell research policy (mis-framing twice): “President Bush can try to defend his restrictions on stem cell research as good religion or good morality. . . . What he can’t do is defend it as good science.”

But this is a travesty of “science.” It is true that certain norms by which scientists must act come in some sense from “outside” science. The demand for the informed consent of research subjects is an example. But science is itself an ethically governed practice, committed to genuine human goods—such as truth—and to moral norms concerning honesty and research integrity. In these respects, ethics is a part of good science.

Moreover, science is deeply social, not only methodologically, but in the following sense: science arises in, and both shapes and is shaped by, the larger community of which it is a part. Scientists thus have obligations to the members of that larger community, without which there would, of course, be no such thing as contemporary science.

To pit science against morality, rather than to see ethical science as an enhancement of scientific practice, is thus a blinkered view. Scientists who are willing to “stop at nothing,” to pursue success “at any cost,” or to put the scientific end above any ethical means are, I would argue, bad scientists. The same is true of scientists who see themselves as opposed to the norms of the larger “ethical” community of which they are a part. The effort to ensure that science is ethical is pro-science, without equivocation.

Ethics vs. Medicine

A similar error can be seen when ethical concerns with fetal tissue research are said to be opposed to the goals of medicine.

The effort to create a vaccination against COVID-19 is not an effort of speculative or “pure” scientific research. It exists at the border of science and medicine. The rhetoric of those opposed to the administration’s policy is thus replete with the language of medicine: cure, patient, therapy, and so on. The policy, one would think, exists in opposition to these, and to the fundamental purposes of modern medicine.

This too is a false framing. The practice of medicine today has as its primary end the good of health, especially as that good can be realized in the lives of those patients to whom a physician has committed his or her service.

Those who wish to see the policy rescinded draw on the language of this practice: if physicians are dedicated to patient health, then a vaccine against COVID-19 must be pursued at any price. Only thus can the preeminent goal of medicine be successfully pursued.

But commitment to the kind of end that shapes and constitutes a profession such as law, or the clergy, or medicine, cannot be a cut-and-paste affair. St. Augustine argued that religious leaders, committed to the good of truth (and indeed Truth), must not lie in service of their ends, lest they subvert the foundations of their cause. (Following Augustine, I argued on similar grounds here at Public Discourse that pro-life leaders also must not lie in the pursuit of their goals.) Similarly, lawyers must not pursue unjust means to just outcomes, and physicians ought not to support anti-health measures in the pursuit of health.

But this is precisely what the use of fetal tissue from aborted human beings involves: it predicates the health of some on the deliberate destruction of the lives and health of others. That predication is incompatible with the fundamental commitments of medicine, and thus it is not surprising to find physicians and nurses among those in the front ranks of opposition to fetal tissue research in recent decades.

The demand now, that the administration back away from its policy announcement of June 2019, is unsurprising and understandable. The nation is in the midst of a crisis unprecedented in our age. Is this not the time for a more flexible approach that will possibly save lives in the end?

Putting aside all that is built into the word “possibly” here, we can still answer in the negative. This is the time when ethical principles, while put to the test, must be held to firmly. As is true of our decisions regarding the allocation of care when resources grow scarce, so in this case too: we here “decide what sort of society we want ours to be—we are constituting ourselves as a certain kind of people.” We must emerge from this death-filled crisis committed more firmly as a society to life, not least in the person of those youngest and most vulnerable members of our human family.

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