Use of Aborted Fetal Cells Prompts Probe at Catholic Institution
Dec 04, 2005
The letter last fall from an antiabortion group posed an unexpected quandary for Georgetown University Medical Center .
(Washington Post, January 30, 2004) A Florida-based group wrote to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that some scientists at Georgetown , a Catholic university, were doing research using cells derived from aborted fetuses.
An in-house investigation verified the claim. But when 14 of the researchers involved said that ending the use of the cells in question would jeopardize years of work and funding, the matter was turned over to ethicists. In a recommendation that scholars said could mark a first in Catholic medical research in the United States , Georgetown has decided to let those researchers continue their work.
The Rev. Kevin T. FitzGerald, a university bioethicist, said he reasoned that the scientists did not know the cells had come from aborted fetuses when they began their work and should not be forced to abandon potentially lifesaving studies or risk forfeiting grants. The benefits to society, he said, far outweigh the harm done by using the cells, because the abortions were not performed for the purpose of providing the cells to scientists.
"The ideal would be not to be involved with [aborted fetal cells] at all," said FitzGerald, a Jesuit priest who holds a doctorate in molecular genetics. "Obviously, we don't live in an ideal world. We do the best we can."
Four other Georgetown researchers agreed to switch to other cell lines after determining they could do so without compromising their work. The medical center has removed the controversial frozen cell lines from its central repository on campus.
But those moves do not preclude a Georgetown researcher from using aborted fetal cells in the future if there are no alternatives. FitzGerald said each instance would have to be judged.
"We have to pull in the administrators at the university to say what sorts of things can we put in place as far as a screening process," he said. "We have to figure out who does it, where does the screening take place, how is it structured, who decides. I don't know what we're going to be able to do or not do. This is new ground."
John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, said the ethical issues surrounding the use of fetal cells, embryonic stem cells and cloning are the most controversial facing the church. "I don't see the moral difficulty in using these cell lines, because you're not contributing in any way to the abortions, which took place decades ago," Haas said. "However, there is the risk of leading people to think that [some Catholic institutions do not] consider abortion to be a great evil and are indifferent to it and willing to work with tissue that result from that kind of action."
Haas said Georgetown is the first Catholic research institution that has addressed the issue publicly and said it is possible that others have made internal decisions that have not been disclosed.
Debra Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life, who initiated the complaint, said she was dismayed to learn that Georgetown has made compromises in coping with a complex problem. She said McCarrick wrote to her last month to say her concerns "had been resolved," which she took to mean that the cell lines were no longer in use.
Vinnedge said she could understand Georgetown 's position. "Once you start your research, you can't start introducing variables," she said, adding that she hopes the institution will retire the cell lines once the particular research projects are completed. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said McCarrick had asked Georgetown to look into the letter from Vinnedge and was satisfied with its response.
Some of the involved cell lines, which are widely used in medical research nationwide, were derived from cells that were harvested from aborted fetuses in Europe nearly 40 years ago, while others are more recent. Scientists say they prefer working with cells from fetuses because they can grow rapidly and adapt to new environments better than those from mature humans. Cell lines can be maintained indefinitely in the laboratory, leaving little need to extract new ones.
Some of Georgetown 's cells have been at the medical center for years, stored in a liquid nitrogen freezer. They are being used by scientists in studies on treatments for illnesses that include Alzheimer's disease, cancer, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and heart disease, said Georgetown spokeswoman Amy DeMaria.
Fetal cells are not subject to federal restrictions, such as a ban on federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells created after August 2001. The Catholic church objects to research on cells from aborted fetuses, but it allows the use of cells from miscarried fetuses, including those from spontaneous abortions, because they were unplanned.
Vinnedge's organization, based in Clearwater , Fla. , was established to protest the use of aborted fetal cell lines in developing vaccines. From reading scientific journals, Vinnedge said, she had identified several cell lines said to have come from aborted fetuses. When she searched for them by code number on the Internet, she found them on a Georgetown Web site listing cell lines in use at the medical center.
"I've never seen anything like this at a Catholic university," she said in a telephone interview this week.
Vinnedge's letter to McCarrick triggered an unprecedented internal review by Georgetown bioethicists, university officials said.
In weighing how to handle the issue, Georgetown looked to the debate of a decade ago, when many Catholics became aware that cells from an aborted fetus were used to originate cultures used to manufacture chicken pox vaccine and measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Since then, a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine has been developed without cells from an aborted fetus, but the chicken pox vaccine is still made with the same cell line.
Church officials concluded that the benefits of widespread immunization significantly outweighed the drawbacks of using aborted fetal cells, said FitzGerald.
"The connection to the abortion was distant and remote enough to say that this in no way encouraged or facilitated further abortions," he said. "The good was a proportionately strong enough argument to say, 'Do this.' "
Georgetown applied the same rationale to the new dilemma, reasoning that the work its scientists had been doing was too important "to throw all this good stuff out," FitzGerald said.
But FitzGerald acknowledged the practical challenge of avoiding the cell lines in future research projects. Investigators often must use a particular line of aborted fetal cells to qualify for a grant because the National Institutes of Health or other research funding agencies want to compare the results with other studies performed using the same source material. Using cells with different traits would make comparisons invalid, he said.
Fitzgerald said Georgetown scientists should not feel threatened by the university's actions. "We're not trying to roll back anybody's freedoms or disrupt anybody's research," he said.