Cover Story

The harvest of abortion

Fetal-tissue research: Making the best of a bad situation, or sliding further down the slippery slope? Congress and the Clinton administration's lifting of the fetal-tissue research ban has turned human-remains trafficking into big business

Issue: "The harvest of abortion," Oct. 23, 1999

WARNING: This story contains some graphic detail.

As Monday morning sunshine spills across the high plains of Aurora, Colo., and a new work week begins, fresh career challenges await Ms. Ying Bei Wang. On Monday, for example, she might scalpel her way through the brain stem of an aborted 24-week pre-born child, pluck the brain from the baby's peach-sized head with forceps, and plop it into wet ice for later shipment. On Tuesday, she might carefully slice away the delicate tissue that secures a dead child's eyes in its skull, and extract them whole. Ms. Ying knows her employer's clients prefer the eyes of dead babies to be whole. One once requested to receive 4 to 10 per day.

Although she works in Aurora at an abortion clinic called the Mayfair Women's Center, Ms. Ying is employed by the Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF), a Maryland-based nonprofit. AGF is one of at least five U.S. organizations that collect, prepare, and distribute to medical researchers fetal tissue, organs, and body parts that are the products of voluntary abortions.

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When "Kelly," a woman who claimed to have been an AGF "technician" like Ms. Ying, approached Life Dynamics in 1997, the pro-life group launched an undercover investigation. The probe unearthed grim, hard-copy evidence of the cross-country flow of baby body parts, including detailed dissection orders, a brochure touting "the freshest tissue available," and price lists for whole babies and parts. One 1999 price list from a company called Opening Lines reads like a cannibal's wish list: Skin $100. Limbs (at least 2) $150. Spinal cord $325. Brain $999 (30% discount if significantly fragmented).

The evidence confirmed what pro-life bioethicists have long predicted: the nadir-bound plummet of respect for human life-and the ascendancy of death for profit.

"It's the inevitable logical progression of a society that, like Darwin, believes we came from nothing," notes Gene Rudd, an obstetrician and member of the Christian Medical and Dental Society's Bioethics Commission. "When we fail to see life as sacred and ordained by God as unique, this is the reasonable conclusion ... taking whatever's available to gratify our own self-interests and taking the weakest of the species first ... like jackals. This is the inevitable slide down the slippery slope."

In 1993, President Clinton freshly greased that slope. Following vigorous lobbying by patient advocacy groups, Mr. Clinton signed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act, effectively lifting the ban on federally funded research involving the transplantation of fetal tissue. For medical and biotech investigators, it was as though the high government gate barring them from Research Shangri-La had finally been thrown open. Potential cures for Parkinson's, AIDS, and cancer suddenly shimmered in the middle distance. The University of Washington in Seattle opened an NIH-funded embryology laboratory that runs a round-the-clock collection service at abortion clinics. NIH itself advertised (and still advertises) its ability to "supply tissue from normal or abnormal embryos and fetuses of desired gestational ages between 40 days and term."

But, this being the land of opportunity, fetal-tissue entrepreneurs soon emerged to nip at NIH's well-funded heels. Anatomic Gift Foundation, Opening Lines, and at least two other companies-competition AGF representatives say they know of, but decline to name-joined the pack. Each firm formed relationships with abortion clinics. Each also furnished abortionists with literature and consent forms for use by clinic counselors in making women aware of the option to donate their babies' bodies to medical science. According to AGF executive director Brent Bardsley, aborting mothers are not approached about tissue donation until after they've signed a consent to abort.

Ironically, it is the babies themselves that are referred to as "donors," as though they had some say in the matter. Such semantic red flags-and a phalanx of others-have bioethicists hotly debating the issue of fetal-tissue research: Does the use of the bodies of aborted children for medical research amount to further exploitation of those who are already victims? Will the existence of fetal-tissue donation programs persuade more mothers that abortion is an acceptable, even altruistic, option? Since abortion is legal and the human bodies are destined to be discarded anyway, does it all shake out as a kind of ethical offset, mitigating the abortion holocaust with potential good?

While the ethical debate rages in air-conditioned conference rooms, material obtained by Life Dynamics points up what goes on in abortion clinic labs: the cutting up and parting out of dead children. The fate of these smallest victims is chronicled in more than 50 actual dissection orders or "protocols" obtained by the activist group. The protocols detail how requesting researchers want baby parts cut and shipped: "Dissect fetal liver and thymus and occasional lymph node from fetal cadaver within 10 (minutes of death)." "Arms and legs need not be intact." "Intact brains preferred, but large pieces of brain may be usable."

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