A recent undercover operation by an antiabortion group has cast light on some of the gruesome details behind abortion clinics’ cooperation with biotech companies in the supply of aborted foetal remains for research purposes.
The story is as grotesque as you might imagine, with the Planned Parenthood senior director of medical research detailing some of the ways in which her organisation could help meet the biotech companies’ needs:
“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
We aren’t accustomed to hearing human beings described in such a way, like meat cut to order, and part of the shock perhaps lies in the cavalier reminder that by ten weeks human foetuses do have functioning vital organs. Use of the term “crush” to describe the method is likewise highly evocative, and uncharacteristic in the usual context of abortion advocacy – where people are at pains to avoid language that might accurately describe the procedures taking place.
The video is being used by antiabortion activists to support claims that Planned Parenthood is selling foetal organs to biotech companies. Planned Parenthood denies it is selling the organs, and the argument that it is merely receiving reimbursement for time and resources allocated to the donation of foetal tissue may see the allegations falter.
Regardless of the legality of the process, donation of aborted foetal tissue for research purposes is not new. But in an era of increasingly commercialised biotech research, renewed attention to this macabre relationship between research, capital, and abortion is appropriately disturbing.
IVF and the commodification of embryos
My years in bioethics repeatedly demonstrated that our ethical landscape is in a shambles. On the one hand, abortion operated on the premise that the foetus was not a human being – a conclusion that rested more on a simple dualistic metaphysics than on scientific taxonomy. On the other hand, IVF proceeded with the assurance that embryos would always be treated with the respect that is their due; that commodification and objectification of human life would not follow.
Decades later, growing interest in embryonic stem cells fortuitously coincided with a backlog of frozen “surplus” embryos, a vast research resource that was pointlessly sitting “on ice” but that advocates of stem cell research assured us could instead be put to good use.
Curiously, this more pragmatic attitude to the frozen embryos was not seen as a fulfilment of earlier warnings about the commodification and objectification of human life that would be wrought by IVF. Instead, embryonic stem cell proponents argued by turns that this wasn’t really human life, since the embryos were never destined to be implanted and develop to term, and that regardless of their exact status, utilising these embryos for research was clearly the lesser of two evils when the alternative was to leave them frozen for ever, or to allow them to die.
Maybe one day – perhaps when commercial surrogacy is commonplace – people will stop and acknowledge that, yes, IVF did indeed lead to the commodification and objectification of human life. But I suspect that if such an admission occurs it will be followed by the claim that commodification and objectification are surely not so bad after all.
The research agenda: Australia’s experience
Australians have been shocked by two recent cases of would-be parents abandoning children to their surrogates in Thailand and India, with one – coincidentally a convicted child sex-abuser – even having the audacity to seek a refund. But it is not hard to imagine the popular reaction morphing from disgust at “irresponsible parenthood”, to contempt at “breach of contract”, and then dismay at the complications surrounding children who – if not strictly parentless – are effectively commissioned goods left uncollected.
These kinds of outcomes are not surprising to those of us on the “traditional” or “conservative” side of bioethics, perhaps most simply because we do not believe the reassurances of those who are eager to see the law bent or reformed to allow them the liberties they desire. Perhaps also because we are not as blinkered by the desire to see a particular morally controversial practice become law.
When Australia’s federal parliament voted in 2002 to allow embryonic stem cell research, it stood united in its opposition to human cloning. The opposition to cloning gave the impression of a line that would not be crossed. It reassured both the Australian public and the politicians themselves that there were limits to their ethical adventurism. The more they declared the strength of their opposition to cloning, the more considerate and trustworthy they appeared in their willingness to allow the destruction of IVF embryos for research purposes.
Four years later, parliament voted to allow therapeutic cloning. As the then Health Minister Tony Abbott noted of his parliamentary colleagues in the build-up to the 2006 vote:
“they owe it to the rest of us to explain in detail how something completely unacceptable just four years ago is positively desirable now.”
Nothing had changed, yet enough time had passed for the logical next step of the research agenda to be approved. The same motives behind the 2002 vote held true for the 2006 vote: the promise of cures for all diseases, the fear of losing researchers to more permissive overseas efforts, and an a priori commitment to the expansion of scientific research over antiquated moral scruples.
Logically, it was incongruous for parliament to unanimously reject therapeutic cloning in 2002, but politically it was expedient to separate the two equally controversial yet ethically distinct issues.
In 2006, supporters of therapeutic cloning repeated the tactic from 2002, drawing a new line in the sand that could be described as utterly off-limits, morally repugnant, and worthy of unanimous rejection. Thus, careful (albeit ethically inconsequential) distinctions were made between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning; obfuscations were made as to the nature of the cloned embryo, with claims that it wasn’t an embryo as it hadn’t been created through the combination of sperm and egg, or that it wasn’t an embryo because there was no intention to implant it and bring it to term – which is a bit like saying that an oven is not an oven if it only ever sits in a showroom.
Waste not, want not
Ontological misadventures aside, the lesson to take away from this bit of history is that people are by and large consistent with the logic of their own motives and the implicit logic of reality itself. It seemed incongruous at the time that people would so sternly and emotively reject therapeutic cloning only to have a collective “change of heart” four years later.
It is likewise incongruous to think that people could actively take part in the routine killing and destruction of unborn human beings and not come to see the commercial and research potential of what is otherwise merely a biological waste product of their business, which they must pay to have removed and disposed of. Pay or be paid? These people aren’t idiots.
As the Planned Parenthood executive told her supposed “buyers”:
“I think everybody just wants, it’s really just about if anyone were ever to ask them, ‘What do you do for this $60? How can you justify that? Or are you basically just doing something completely egregious, that you should be doing for free.’ So it just needs to be justifiable…
…for affiliates, at the end of the day, they’re a non-profit, they just don’t want to—they want to break even. And if they can do a little better than break even, and do so in a way that seems reasonable, they’re happy to do that. Really their bottom line is, they want to break even. Every penny they save is a just pennies they give to another patient. To provide a service the patient wouldn’t get.”
“StemExpress promotes global biomedical research while also providing a financial benefit to your clinic. By partnering with StemExpress, not only are you offering a way for your clients to participate in the unique opportunity to facilitate life-saving research, but you will also be contributing to the fiscal growth of your own clinic. The stem cell rich blood and raw materials that are usually discarded during procedures can, instead, be expedited through StemExpress to research laboratories with complete professionalism and source anonymity.”
Check out their great prices on foetal liver cells!
Biotech is big business, and StemExpress boasts of being a multi-million dollar company with a global market. On the one hand, none of this should come as a surprise, and there are so many “wins” to this story that it’s hard to imagine any legal action coming out of it. Count the “wins”: big business, profit-sharing, “life-saving research”, turning “waste material” into valuable research material, and giving women ambivalent about ending the life of their unborn child the opportunity to “donate” to on-going research. As the Planned Parenthood executive put it:
“Every patient experiences a whole wide range of emotions about the experience in general, and so you don’t know where they’re coming at from there. But I think every one of them is happy to know that there’s a possibility for them to do ‘this extra bit of good,’ in what they do.”
Welcome to a new era of human sacrifice
There have been debates in the pro-life movement about using graphic imagery – that is, images of aborted foetuses – to try to bring home the reality of abortion to an ambivalent and largely ignorant population. Stories like this achieve a similar end, shocking many who have never really put two-and-two together when it comes to the act of abortion as opposed to abstract arguments about rights and humanity. It’s one thing to support “a woman’s right to choose” and quite another to resist blanching at a Planned Parenthood executive’s casual references to sought-after body-parts: lungs, livers (“always as many intact livers as possible”), and lower extremities (legs and feet) as well.
This candid business conversation belies the still-influential claims that abortion is merely the removal of a non-descript “blob of tissue” or “clump of cells”. Revealing the particulars of the business and research interest in aborted foetuses will shock people who never considered organ harvesting and abortion in the same context.
In science the term “sacrifice” is commonly used to describe the killing of an animal for research purposes; cooperative relationships between abortion providers, researchers, and middle-men suggests we have already entered a phase of de facto human sacrifice for research purposes.
Welcome to a society that devours its own children; where, through various avenues, the destruction and manipulation of human life, and commodification and objectification of human remains is increasingly entrenched in our economic fabric, and where commercial and research operations have quietly normalised the use of aborted human remains “for the benefit of all”.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.