Planned Parenthood is under attack by antiabortion activists over secretly recorded videos showing its executives candidly talking about supplying fetal tissue for medical research.
This abortion-related controversy is providing grist for the many Republican presidential candidates hitting the trail. But it is also reviving public interest in fetal tissue research, which has yielded advances that have saved the lives of countless babies.
Consider rubella. During a U.S. epidemic in the mid-1960s, an estimated 31,000 pregnant women infected with the virus suffered stillbirths, gave birth to severely disabled infants, or decided to end their pregnancies.
One such aborted fetus was sent to Philadelphia's Wistar Institute, where vaccine pioneer Stanley Plotkin isolated the rubella virus from kidney tissue. He developed the vaccine that is still given today by growing the virus in an experimental cell line made from the lungs of an uninfected fetus aborted in Sweden.
"Human fetal cell strains, derived from voluntary abortions, have been extremely important for vaccine development, specifically for rabies, rubella, hepatitis A, and chicken pox," Plotkin, now 83, said this week. "It is important to understand that the cell [lines] are stored and no new abortions are done to produce those vaccines."
Certain vaccines are so important to public health that even Catholic authorities see a moral imperative. When there is no alternative to a vaccine developed from these fetal cell lines, the National Catholic Bioethics Center says on its website, "One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them."
The undercover videos, made by an antiabortion group and released in recent weeks, stirred a furor on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers opposed to abortion tried to strip Planned Parenthood's federal funding for cancer screenings, birth control, and other health services. Federal funding of abortions is prohibited with rare exceptions.
Among the questions the videos have raised is whether Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue - something the organization denies. Planned Parenthood officials say it charges only to cover handling and other costs, which is legal under a 1993 law.
In recent years, fetal tissue research has been overshadowed by newer technologies, particularly those that use embryonic and adult stem cells, experts say.
From 2011 through 2014, the National Institutes of Health awarded 97 institutions about $280 million for fetal tissue studies, a tiny fraction of its $30.3 billion annual budget for medical research.
Six major institutions contacted by The Inquirer - including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, and Wistar - could not find researchers willing to talk about the highly charged subject.
A Wistar spokeswoman said, "Fetal tissue research is not pertinent to or a focus of Wistar's current and long-term scientific activities."
Still, fetal cells have been key to historic breakthroughs, notably the polio vaccine. They remain crucial to some biomedical fields.
"Due to their capacity to rapidly divide, grow, and adapt to new environments, fetal cells hold unique promise" for those fields, according to the American Society for Cell Biology.
Researchers study fetal tissue to learn about birth defects, as well as the genetic roots of diseases including Down syndrome, sudden infant death syndrome, and eye abnormalities.
Even late-life diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes may be linked to genes activated during fetal development, the cell biology society says.
For many decades, scientists have experimented with transplanting fetal cells into patients to treat degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's. The approach has not yielded great success. In a parallel of the current controversy, President Ronald Reagan in 1988 imposed a moratorium on federal funding of fetal transplantation research because of concerns about abortion. President Bill Clinton lifted it in 1993.
Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other centers use fetal tissue to implant the human immune system into mice as a way to study diseases without employing people as test subjects. They add tumors to study the immune system's response, then test cancer treatments on the mice.
"This eventually will provide a benefit to society," said Jianzhu Chen, an immunology professor and researcher at MIT.
At Stanford University, fetal tissue has been used to study Huntington's disease, immune-deficient "bubble boy disease," and juvenile diabetes. Fetal brain calls are now being used there in research on autism and schizophrenia.
After the release of the undercover videos, Colorado State University conducted an ethics review and suspended its dealings with one vendor. But it is pressing ahead with its HIV research using fetal tissue.
"Our position is, this research has such tremendous value in driving discoveries that could be done no other way," said Alan Rudolph, the university's vice president of research.