Attempts to reconcile science with ethics and religious faith didn’t begin with the latest debate over research use of fetal tissue – nor will they end there.
More recently, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins professed his faith despite leading a massive project to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, which is mankind’s DNA instruction book.
“As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan,” wrote Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project before his appointment to lead NIH in 2009.
Such perspectives matter as the Wisconsin Legislature debates a bill to ban the sale and use of fetal tissue. The bill, which was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday, is a reaction to the release of surreptitiously recorded conversations between anti-abortion activists posing as fetal tissue brokers and an official from Planned Parenthood in California.
The political reflex to the creepy possibility that people are illegally selling organs and tissue from aborted fetuses is understandable. The rush to pass overly broad legislation that would outlaw and even criminalize legitimate, longstanding medical research is not.
It is already against the law to sell fetal tissue. A 1993 federal law allows a woman to consent to donations after an abortion, under conditions that prevent her from knowing or having a say in how the tissue will be used … let alone profiting from it. The same law allows for “reasonable” fees to recover the costs of donating the tissue, which is what Planned Parenthood insists was discussed in the July videos.
Tissue donations are not conducted at Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin, however. Major research institutions such as the UW-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin have undertaken fetal tissue research for decades; today they obtain tissue from federally monitored tissue banks.
That amplifies a larger ethical point at danger of being lost in this debate: Researchers across the United States have used fetal tissue since the 1930s to advance medicine.
Such experiments led to development of the polio vaccine, to cite one prominent example. Current studies use fetal tissue to target birth defects and diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes, from muscular dystrophy to Parkinson’s disease, and from immune disorders to killer strains of influenza. A cell line known as HEK 293 and derived from a single fetus more than 40 years ago is still used by researchers everywhere – including nearly 100 labs on the Madison campus alone.
The threat lies not ratifying the illegality of fetal tissue sales in Wisconsin. The danger rests in passing a broadly written bill that would chill biomedical research here.
Leaders of the state’s two medical schools have said they’re opposed to legislation that would shut down promising research, which would have economic as well as ethical costs if life-saving therapies aren’t allowed to reach the finish line.
Others note that $76 million in outside research dollars, predominantly from federal sources such as the National Institutes for Health, flow each year to UW-Madison labs that conduct research with fetal tissue. Collectively, those labs employ about 1,400 people, according to a campus spokesman.
Promising young companies would also be threatened. One example is FluGen in Madison, which is developing a flu vaccine by growing the virus in HEK cells. Take that tool away and the company would be less likely to start clinical trials – and could be forced to leave Wisconsin.
It’s already hard enough to attract outside venture capital to Wisconsin companies; a ban on legally and ethically obtained fetal tissue research would make it even harder.
Proponents of the bill say they’re open to revisions. One amendment could be as simple as placing the burden of proof on the research institutions themselves, which pay to transport and safely store legally obtained tissue, rather than individual researchers down the line. If tissue donations meet with federal rules, why should Wisconsin law impose further hurdles? The bill should also exempt tissue derived before a certain date, which would at least ensure the legacy HEK 293 lines.
The economic costs are substantial. So are the ethical costs of failing to strike a balance between matters of faith and science. Earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker tweeted: “Both science & my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith & science are compatible & go hand in hand.” If a poorly drafted bill reaches his desk, let’s hope he carefully weighs both beliefs.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.