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Associated Press/Photo by Noah Berger

Fetal attraction

Abortion | Aborted babies provide the vast majority of fetal tissue used in American medical research. Demand is high, competition for the tissue is strong, and oversight may be taking a back seat

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

H. Ronald Zielke is a bank director. His institution collected $1.4 million in federal funds last year-but inside, you won't find money. You'll find human tissue.

Zielke's bank is the Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders, hosted by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Each year it distributes some 3,000 tissue samples to researchers, collected from donors (average age: 20 to 40 years old) with neurological disorders ranging from autism to Down syndrome to Parkinson's disease. The donors' cellular material will aid researchers looking for treatments for such diseases.

According to the bank's 234-page "Catalog of Available Tissue," updated July 1, it also stores tissue from hundreds of fetuses, including those with chromosomal disorders, anencephaly (a brain malformation)-and many with no disorders at all, marked as "control" tissue and spanning ages 10 to 39 weeks.

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I wanted to learn what scientists do with fetal tissue, and where they get it, so I called the bank director. The funny thing was, Zielke didn't seem to know much about the source of fetal tissue. He thought researchers occasionally acquired fetal remains directly from "some service that does terminations," such as clinics and hospitals with whom they had private agreements-but "this isn't something that is generally known."

When I asked Zielke if his bank distinguished between fetal tissue derived from abortions or miscarriages, he changed the subject: "There are very strict federal guidelines about how tissue can be collected," he said, and alluded to the filing of consent forms. These types of questions, he insisted, were outside his expertise.

Federal and some state laws permit fetal tissue research, and although some regulation of the practice exists, there appear to be gaps in oversight. Few have firsthand knowledge of the secretive networks that procure the tissue, and no central agency or organization tracks them. But an uncomfortable reality is clear: The overwhelming majority of fetal tissue used for research in the United States is obtained from aborted babies.

Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue for profit but allows "reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue." Such transactions were last in the media spotlight over a decade ago, when the pro-life organization Life Dynamics paid the employee of a fetal tissue collection organization to turn over evidence of legally questionable practices. (WORLD reported the news in October 1999 and April 2000.)

Life Dynamics uncovered confidential order forms and price lists showing that scientists at pharmaceutical companies and universities were ordering fetal parts-brains, limbs, and organs-from procurement groups that collected the tissue directly from abortion clinics. Life Dynamics said that one procurement group, the Maryland-based Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF), made between $12,000 and $18,000 in profit during a single month.

Lawmakers called for a congressional hearing in March 2000, but when key witnesses failed to appear, and another witness proved unreliable, the matter stagnated and legislators dropped it. An FBI investigation later declared it had found no illegal activity.

Public attention was powerful, though: AGF dropped its fetal tissue business, and today the organization only accepts donors who are at least 18 years old. Two of the largest tissue suppliers in the country, who handled fetal tissue into the 1990s have also washed their hands of the trade. But that doesn't mean the practice has ceased.

An assessment published in 1995 in The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that fetuses obtained from miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies were a "quite limited" source for fetal tissue, while another study published in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research in 2001, the authors noted that out of 37 donated fetuses they used for their research, 33 had come from elective abortions. According to other journal articles, very little tissue comes from fetuses dying natural deaths.

To learn firsthand how tissue makes its way to research labs, I reached by phone the executive director of an abortion clinic that allows women to donate their fetuses. Jennifer Boulanger of the Allentown Women's Center in Allentown, Pa., said her clinic supplies tissue to the University of Washington. She said her clinic is not paid for the donations, but the university provides her staff with the supplies needed to collect and ship the specimens.

In order to abide by state law, the clinic's workers don't tell women about the donation program until after they have made the decision to abort. Boulanger explained that although women must be a certain number of weeks along in their pregnancies to qualify for the program, "I would say the majority of those who are eligible choose to donate."

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