Fetal Tissue Research

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Fetal Tissue Research

Scientific experimentation performed upon or using tissue taken from human fetuses.

Although fetal tissue research has led to medical advances, including the development of the polio and rubella vaccines in the 1950s, it has also generated controversy because of its use of fetuses from elective abortions. Fetal tissue research has been subject to strict government regulation and periodic moratoriums on federal funding. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act of 1993 (Pub. L. No. 103-43 [42 U.S.C.A. §§ 289g-1, -2]) regulates many aspects of fetal tissue research.


Fetal tissue research has been conducted in the United States since the middle of the twentieth century. Its practice became more common as the amount of biomedical research increased and as restrictions on the availability of abortion decreased. Research on fetal tissue led to significant advances in the scientific understanding of fetal development and in the diagnosis and treatment of fetal diseases and defects, including the development of amniocentesis as a diagnostic tool. It also played a role in advancing the scientific understanding of cancer, immunology, and transplantation.

Because fetal tissue grows more rapidly, is more flexible than other human tissue, and is less likely to be rejected by the immune system, it has also been used to treat diseases through transplantation. Fetal tissue transplantation usually involves the injection of fetal cells into a diseased organ such as the brain or pancreas. Many scientists believe that fetal tissue transplantation will lead to significant new developments in medical science. Researchers have already had limited success in using fetal tissue transplants to treat patients with Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and other illnesses. Although most medical ethicists agree that these new procedures hold great promise, they warn that the use of fetal tissue must be strictly regulated in order to avoid ethical abuses.


Fetal tissue research became a subject of controversy in U.S. law following the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in roe v. wade, 410U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, which protects the right of a woman to have an abortion in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. After Roe, research performed on fetuses obtained from elective abortions came under close scrutiny.

In 1974, the National Research Act (Pub. L. No. 93-348) created a national commission to oversee research that involves fetuses. This body released research guidelines and also placed restrictions on what types of fetal research might be allowed to receive federal funding.

In 1988, NIH scientists requested approval from the department of health and human services (HHS) to begin transplantation experiments using fetal brain tissue. Because the administration of President ronald reagan was concerned about the link between fetal tissue research and abortion, the HHS imposed a temporary Moratorium on federal funds for research in fetal tissue transplantation. Although a 21-member NIH panel later approved the use of human fetal tissue for transplantation and disagreed with the contention that such research would cause more abortions, the moratorium was extended indefinitely by Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, of the HHS, in 1989.

In subsequent years, legislation to overturn the moratorium repeatedly failed in Congress. Then, shortly after taking office in 1993, President bill clinton ordered the end of the moratorium (58 Fed. Reg. 7457). Later in 1993, Congress passed the NIH Revitalization Act, which permits the tissue from any type of abortion to be used for fetal tissue research. The law includes elaborate consent and documentation requirements that attempt to separate the mother's decision to abort from the decision to donate fetal remains. It also criminalizes the sale or purchase of fetal tissue and the designation of the recipient of fetal tissue.

Soon after President george w. bush took office in January 2001, the controversy over fetal tissue research found itself again in the public spotlight. In a nationally televised speech during prime time, the president presented new national policies involving embryonic stem cell research. An embryonic stem cell is a kind of master cell taken from a 5-day-old embryo that can develop into virtually any type of body tissue. Researchers believe those specialized cells could then be transplanted into patients to correct disorders such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease and spinal cord paralysis.

In his speech on embryonic stem cell research, the president announced a policy of continued—though severely limited—federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. This approval is strictly limited to 60 existing genetic lines of embryonic stem cells. Additionally, the president announced the creation of a council to develop federal guidelines and monitor embryonic stem cell research. He expressed concern over the conduct of embryonic stem cell research that had been privately funded, often done in secret, and conducted without regulation. But the limits imposed by the president, particularly those excluding new stem cell lines developed from embryos, will slow the pace of scientific discovery in this area.

The Debate

Those opposed to fetal tissue research have made a number of arguments against the use of fetuses from elective abortions. Morally opposed to abortion itself, they argue that the fetal tissue researcher is complicit in the destruction of the fetus and that fetal tissue research will create incentives for more abortions. Moreover, they maintain that a woman who has an abortion cannot legally authorize research on the aborted fetus because she has abandoned her parental responsibility through the act of abortion. They also argue that fetal tissue research can and should be restricted to fetuses from spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies.

Those who favor fetal tissue research contend that it has already led to significant medical gains that have saved and improved many lives, and will continue to do so. They argue that researchers have an ethical duty to relieve suffering and cure diseases and that fetal tissue research contributes greatly to this cause. They also contend that researchers must continue to have access to ethically obtained fetuses. They hold that the tissue of fetuses from elective abortions has far fewer defects and is much easier to obtain than that of fetuses from nonelective abortions or ectopic pregnancies.

Further readings

American Society for Cell Biology. 2001. "Position Paper on Bush Decision on Federal Funding of Stem Cell Research." Available online at <www.ascb.org/news room/positionpaper.html> (accessed July 21, 2003).

Beller, Fritz K., and Robert F. Weir, eds. 1994. The Beginning of Human Life. Boston: Kluwer.

Goddard, James E. 1996. "The NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 Washed Away Many Legal Problems with Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research but a Stain Remains." Southern Methodist University Law Review 49 (January– February).

Taylor, Betty W., et al. 1999. Feminist Jurisprudence, Women and the Law: Critical Essays, Research Agenda, and Bibliography. Littleton, Colo.: Fred B. Rothman.


Fetal Rights; Women's Rights.

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