Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following Planned Parenthood in the news. To summarize what’s been happening, several congressmen (most of them Republicans) have been pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, claiming reduction of federal spending as a primary motive. As additional ammunition for their defunding schemes, these politicians have cited videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (an anti-abortion group), which claim that Planned Parenthood harvests and sells fetal tissues for profit.
As a woman and a scientist, I am very interested in Planned Parenthood’s fate. As a woman, I want to know that I will be able to access educational, contraceptive, and gynecological resources throughout my life. (Read more about the resources Planned Parenthood provides here.) As a scientist, I am concerned that those videos depict the collection of fetal tissues as a gruesome and profitable enterprise. (FYI – it is illegal to sell human tissues for profit). Since I’m not connected with Planned Parenthood, I can’t say whether the videos released accurately depict the inner workings of this organization, although I highly suspect that those videos were edited to intentionally misrepresent what happens at Planned Parenthood. However, I can tell you that fetal tissues are respectfully collected by numerous medical clinics and that these tissues are used by scientists and doctors to study and treat human diseases.
Unlike how it is depicted in the Planned Parenthood videos, fetal tissue collection is a very respectable venture. Tissues are not collected from every fetus – women receiving abortions choose whether they want to donate the fetus to science. (Fetuses that are not donated to science are disposed of properly and respectfully according to local and federal guidelines). These donated tissues are collected by all sorts of medical entities besides Planned Parenthood including hospitals, doctors’ offices, and medical clinics. Researchers do pay for these tissues, but not an exorbitant fee. The cost associated with fetal tissues is meant to only cover the cost of collecting, preparing, packaging, and shipping these tissues.
The most important question, though, and the reason why I wanted to talk about this is what those fetal tissues are used for. Most of the people I talked to about this think that fetal tissues are used for stem cell research, but fetal tissues can be used in other areas as well.
Fetal tissues do contain a lot of stem cells, which are instrumental in studying various diseases and conditions. With these fetal stem cells and tissues, scientists can give human organs and cells to mice. This is crucial for studying viral diseases such as HIV/AIDS, which don’t easily infect laboratory animals. By using these “humanized mice”, we have learned that women who are not infected with HIV can take anti-retroviral therapy (a standard HIV drug therapy) to reduce the risk of being infected by HIV positive sexual partners. Also, we have learned that treating mothers with anti-retroviral therapy prevents them from passing HIV to their babies via breast milk. Both of these are huge steps in slowing the transmission of HIV.
In addition to letting us study specific diseases, fetal tissues can also be used to directly treat certain conditions. For example, transplants of fetal retinal tissue can restore vision to people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa or diabetic retinopathy. In both of these conditions, the cells that capture images in the retina die, resulting in vision loss. Transplantation with fetal retinas allows for growth of new photoreceptor cells, ultimately restoring vision in the affected individuals.
Don’t get me wrong – while I’m glad that we can use fetal tissues to study and treat diseases, I am deeply saddened that those fetuses never got a chance to live. However, I think that we are respecting and honoring those fetuses by using their tissues to save the lives of others. From something sad comes something good. From their deaths come life.
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