Effectiveness of fetal-tissue transplants does not make them ethical

WASHINGTON (BP)--The first government-funded study using tissue from aborted babies in treating Parkinson's disease was effective in some patients, but such results do not make the procedure ethical, a Southern Baptist bioethics specialist said.

The research showed fetal-tissue transplants are moderately effective in treating Parkinson's disease in younger patients but may not prove curative for those 60 years of age and older, according to The Washington Post. In the study, cells from the midbrains of four unborn babies were transplanted in the brain of each of 20 patients, The Post reported.

The problem for advocates of the sanctity of human life is the treatment's reliance on aborted babies.

"We would be very happy if there were ethically appropriate treatments for Parkinson's disease, but the first question to ask of any therapy is not whether it is effective, but whether it is ethical," said C. Ben Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky. "After all, harvesting organs from individuals against their will would still result in effective transplants, but no one would argue that such an act would be ethical. Similarly, any potential Parkinson's treatment must use only ethical means to get to therapeutic ends."

The "problem of complicity" is greatly disturbing, Mitchell said.

"The decision to abort a baby must not be attached to some hope that the baby's body parts might be used to help others," he said. "It is unconscionable in a context of promiscuous abortion rights to create any incentive to have [abortions]. Our babies must not be sacrificed for the supposed benefit of others."

The solution is for Congress "to establish tissue banks to store tissues from ethically acceptable sources -- spontaneous abortions and therapeutic abortions to save the physical life of the mother. There is no other way to separate the act of killing the fetus from the decision to donate fetal tissues."

While private funding of research using fetal tissue was permitted, a ban on federal funding of such research existed from 1988 to 1993, when President Clinton struck it down two days after he took office. Later that year, the federal government's National Institutes of Health approved funding for a study using such tissue.

The initial transplant using tissue from aborted babies was performed in 1988 by Curt Freed, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, according to The Post. Freed directed the $5.7 million study funded by NIH, the paper reported.

Dramatic improvement has been reported by some Parkinson's patients who received fetal tissue transplants in the last 11 years, and the government study has been long awaited, according to The Post.

The results, announced April 21 at the annual meeting of American Academy of Neurology at Toronto, were not totally successful. While fetal brain cells appeared to grow in a majority of patients, a year after the surgery only those younger than 60 demonstrated marked improvement, The Post reported. The majority of Parkinson's patients are older than 60, according to the paper. In addition, the results even in younger patients were unpredictable, The Post reported.

"It seems less likely that fetal tissue holds out the hope some researchers think it does," said Mitchell, also a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "We should encourage the development of alternative therapies which do not involve complicity with immoral" actions.

Parkinson's is caused by the death of cells that produce dopamine, a chemical responsible for transmitting messages in the brain, according to The Post. Signs of the disease include muscle stiffness, tremors, a retardation of movements and problems with balance, the paper reported.

Fetal-tissue transplants are illegal in some states, The Post reported. The surgery was performed in Denver, but the patients were examined in New York, according to The Post.

In the research, 20 patients were given transplants, while 20 others received fake surgery with no transplant to make sure there was no "placebo effect," according to The Post. Since then, 14 of the 20 with fake transplants have accepted offers of fetal-tissue transplants, The Post reported.

Reported by Tom Strode

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