As noted in the previous essay, a series of undercover videos have brought Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research to the attention of the public and the media. Obviously enough, providing fetal tissue and its use in research are matters of considerable moral concern.
While there are two issues here, they are obviously connected: one cannot engage in fetal tissue research without this tissue. In the case of the Planned Parenthood videos, the fetal tissue in question is acquired from abortions performed by Planned Parenthood. These abortions are, it is generally accepted, not being performed to provide such tissue. Rather, the abortions are being performed for other reasons and the women are consenting to allow the tissue to be used in research. The ethics of the situation would, obviously enough, be different in women were being impregnated for the purpose of having abortions to generate fetal tissue.
One way to argue that providing such tissue for research is morally acceptable is to draw the obvious analogy to people donating their remains for research or medical school training. In terms of the similarities, human remains are being donated for a positive use (research or training) rather than being buried or cremated. So, if is morally acceptable for hospitals to provide such remains for research and training, it would also be acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.
While this reasoning by analogy is appealing, proper assessment of the argument requires considering relevant differences that might break the analogy. If the providing of fetal tissue for research differs from providing cadavers for research in a morally relevant way, then the analogy could fail.
One clearly relevant difference is that when an adult donates her remains for research or teaching (or agrees to be an organ donor), she is consenting to the use of her remains. While some might argue that the use of human remains is always wrong, the role of consent does seem to be morally significant. Even if using my remains for research would be wrong, using them without my consent would seem worse. Getting back to the actual issue, it is evident that the fetus cannot consent to the donation of its remains. If the fetus did have the capacity for informed consent, this would certainly radically change the broader abortion debate—a fetus with that capacity would be unequivocally a person. Because the fetus cannot consent, its remains could only be used without its consent—thus breaking the analogy.
One reply to this is to argue that the woman has the right to provide such consent, thus restoring the analogy. In the case of donating remains for research, the legal next of kin can (in some cases) make the decision to donate a cadaver for research. Assuming that this is morally acceptable for cadavers, it would also seem morally fine for fetal tissue—the woman would be next of kin for the fetal tissue. Thus, if the fetus does have kin status, it would seem that the next of kin would have the right to decide to donate the remains for research, just as if it were an adult cadaver.
It might be objected that this gives the fetal tissue too much moral status—for the woman to be next of kin to the fetal tissue, it would seem to have to be kin to her as well. Those who take objection to granting the fetus such status could contend that the foundation for the woman’s right to have an abortion also extends to give her the right to decide what happens to the fetal tissue. This would not require granting the fetal tissue any status, other than something analogous to property. In this case, donating the fetal tissue would be morally acceptable, on par with a person donating blood for research.
Assuming that the woman can consent to providing the remains to Planned Parenthood, the organization would have as much right to provide the remains to researchers as would any organization that handles the donation of cadavers. As such, it would seem to be morally acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.
I obviously did not address the broader moral issue of abortion, which is a distinct issue from the two issues being addressed. While it is clearly relevant, it is not my intent to address the ethics of abortion itself here. Instead, I will now turn to the ethics of using fetal tissue in research.
One stock way to approach the ethics of using fetal tissue in research is utilitarian in nature. The idea is to weigh the negative and positive consequences of fetal tissue research, argue that morality should be based on weighing said consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion.
In terms of the positive consequences, the usual line is that the use of fetal tissue is important for medical research aimed at benefitting fetuses and infants. This is hardly surprising: the use of adult human remains has been instrumental in medical advances. While fetuses are obviously human, they do differ in important ways from adults (and children)—hence the need for the fetal tissue in such research.
Since the fetuses are already dead, disposing of the remains rather than using them for positive research to help other fetuses would be a terrible waste, analogous to refusing to allow organ donation or cadaver donation for research.
In terms of negative consequences, one standard line is that using remains in such a manner devalues and disrespects human life, thus pushing us down the slope to terrible consequences. In some cases, people present full slippery slope fallacies, which are clearly flawed. In other cases, people do connect the dots and show how this can contribute to dehumanization and move us towards dire consequences.
These consequences should certainly be considered: treating people as mere things comes at a cost that might exceed the gain claimed in research. There are, however, responses to this.
One is argue that even if there are these negative consequences, the positive consequences of the research outweighs them. A second approach is to argue that such research is consistent with maintaining human dignity: we have, after all, been able to conduct research and training with cadavers without such dire consequences. A third approach, which is rather cynical, is to note that the worry that the use of fetal tissue in research will slide us down the slope is like worrying that splattering a little more mud on the mud will make the mud muddy. That is, people already treat other people so horribly that this will not have any meaningful impact—and at least this use of human remains is aimed at positive ends rather than something awful.
Another approach is to reject the utilitarian approach and make use of an alternative moral theory. One promising option is to use a Kantian argument about using rational being as means rather than ends. While it could be objected that the fetus is a not a rational being, Kant does have a way around that—in his discussion of the ethics of animals he argues that even beings that lack moral status should still be treated as if they were people. At least in certain circumstances. However, Kant does still explicitly allow animals to be used for medical research—so the same might apply to a fetus as well.
One could also contend that the fetus has a moral status that does not depend on it being rational—it simply has a status comparable to that of an adult human. The obvious, if awful, reply is that even if the fetus had the same (or similar) status of an adult human, as fetal tissue it would have the status of a dead adult human. If the use of adult human cadavers is acceptable for research and training medical students, then the same would be true of fetal tissue. Since the use of cadavers in research seems to be well-established as morally acceptable, then the same would apply to fetal tissue.
As noted above, I am not addressing the moral issue of abortion here. Sticking with the analogy to adult cadaver donation, I am not addressing the issue of how the adult died (or was killed) but the ethics of using the already dead remains for research. How the remains became remains is obviously important, but an entirely different issue. Sticking with the analogy, the ethics of Bob being murdered is distinct from the morality of Bob’s cadaver being used for research. While murder is rather clearly wrong, this does not entail that it is thus wrong for Bob’s remains to be donated by his next of kin for research. Since I have written numerous essays on abortion and have nothing new to say on this issue, I refer the reader to these past essays for my arguments on that issue.