How should we think about the videos featuring Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research?

[ By on January 03, 2016 ]

I was a young adult working in the field of scientific research, not long out of college, when fetal tissue research became explicitly legal.  Though I recall disagreements about the morality of abortion from that time, I also recall that many of my science colleagues thought this was a very good decision.  They were invested in the advancement of science and articulated the good that could come from studying the multi-potent cells that exist in embryos and fetuses.   Still, I remember thinking graphically about what this legislation made legal – the harvesting of human tissue.  Ouch.

That feeling came back when I heard about the videos regarding Planned Parenthood.  Though it seems clear that the videos were heavily edited and take remarks out of context, we do need to realize that fetal tissue or the “products of conception” are harvested and used for scientific research.

That very graphic nature of an abortion and of the use of fetal tissue makes some people – perhaps many people – uncomfortable.  This is what Ross Douthat described in an article written around the time the videos were released.  Douthat’s description of one’s response to seemingly horrific scenes reminds me of David Hume‘s methods of determining morality.  I teach Hume because I think it is a useful approach.  Yet, I do not think determining morality based on sentiment alone is sufficient.  There are any number of moral actions that *appear* to be immoral when observed.

A Christian writer whose work I greatly respect wrote a particularly sensitive and reflective piece describing the understandable detachment that some medical professionals exhibit and aptly demonstrating that the status of an embryo / fetus / baby changes (for most people) over the course of the pregnancy.  Ellen Painter Dollar considers multi-faceted moral acts including the termination of pregnancy and the use of fetal tissue in research with honesty and complexity.  She urges us not argue from the poles, but to discuss within the gray space between them.  This is how we need to think about the use of fetal tissue in research.


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