Planned Parenthood Isn’t the Only Caretaker of Fetal Tissue

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Legislation that would end financial compensation for fetal tissue donations could upend medical research that relies on it, according to a bioethicist who helped create the guidelines governing the practice.

The concerns come at a time when Congress is abuzz over Planned Parenthood and its donations of fetal tissue to research facilities. In some cases, Planned Parenthood clinics received reimbursements for storage and transport of the material. The practice has spurred calls from Republicans to defund the organization. Republicans are in the process of crafting a filibuster-proof bill to defund Planned Parenthood to send to President Obama. If it makes it out of the Senate, he will veto it.

While the immense GOP anger at Planned Parenthood has caused turmoil in Congress, the use of fetal tissue in medical research has been largely ignored in the furor. Such research is widely accepted by the medical establishment and elected officials from both political parties.

Last year alone the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on fetal tissue research.  NIH provided funding for dozens of research projects, including awarding $1 million to the biopharmaceutical company Microbiotix Inc. to develop a single agent to treat all herpes viruses. In another instance, Stellenbosch University in South Africa received $980,515 for a study on the effects of heavy drinking on the placenta and developing fetus.

There is one bill in Congress that addresses how medical facilities acquire fetal tissue, but it doesn’t ban the actual research. Rep. Kevin Yoder’s (R-Kan.) Prohibiting Life-Ending Industry of Fetal Organ Exchange Act (Pro-LIFE Act) would prohibit the federal government from giving financial compensation for travel and other logistical fees to providers that donate fetal tissue for medical research.

Yoder’s bill does not outlaw using fetal tissue for research itself, but some industry experts are worried that banning any compensation could keep providers from donating.

The exchange of money for the tissue is not profit. It’s reimbursement for handling charges, according Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center. Caplan was involved in the creation of the current guidelines concerning fetal tissue use. Those rules were released in 1993.

“If you ban the ability to exchange money, you probably would eliminate fetal tissue research because you do want to get paid for the work that you have to do to get it,” Caplan said in an interview.

Yoder’s spokesman said these claims that the bill would harm fetal tissue research are false because providers would still be allowed to donate.

Yoder’s legislation is being billed as a long-term solution to the bigger problem exposed by the Planned Parenthood debate. Controversial videos released by the pro-life group Center for Medical Process that depict Planned Parenthood employees appearing to profit off fetal tissue donations have raised a lot of questions. Planned Parenthood has denied the allegations that its clinics made money off fetal tissue donations. Its argument is backed by a report by the House Energy and Commerce Democratic staff that found “no evidence that Planned Parenthood affiliates knowingly received valuable consideration in exchange for fetal tissue.”

Yoder believes his bill goes to the heart of the controversy because instead of targeting just Planned Parenthood, it would end financial compensation for all providers that donate fetal tissue. “Here we have the loophole that allows abortion providers like Planned Parenthood to say they are selling fetal organs not for profit but for the low price of shipping and handling,” Yoder wrote in an op-ed in August.

Fetal tissue has played a key role in the development of vaccines for polio, mumps and measles, among others. Today fetal tissue is slowly being substituted by stem cells, but most researchers say it will take more time before stem cells can completely replace fetal tissue in medical research.

Yoder’s bill – which sits in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and has 59 Republican co-sponsors – has drawn the ire of some industry experts, who say fetal tissue in medical research wasn’t an issue for Republicans until the furor over Planned Parenthood.

“These rules have been in place for a long time. And until these tapes were made that are so controversial, no one, including very socially conservative Republicans, had spent any time worrying about fetal tissue,” Caplan said. “So there’s a little hypocrisy there.”

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