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Fetal attraction

"Fetal attraction" Continued...

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

To ensure tissue freshness, "the specimens are FedExed overnight" to Seattle, she said. Boulanger didn't have at hand the number of specimens her clinic provides annually, but she estimated, "I don't think it's any more than 10 a week."

The recipient, named misleadingly the Birth Defects Research Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for over four decades. It's known within the research community as a top government distributor of fetal tissue. Last year the Puget Sound Business Journal stated the lab "in 2009 filled more than 4,400 requests for fetal tissue and cell lines."

The lab's grant records indicate it received $579,091 from the NIH last year. To date, it has retrieved the products of 22,000 pregnancies. According to a description the lab provided in its most recent grant applications, an increase in nonsurgical abortion methods has "created new obstacles to obtaining sufficient amounts of high quality tissue. To overcome these problems and meet increasing demand, the Laboratory has developed new relationships with both local and distant clinics."

Demand indeed. It's 2,770 miles from Allentown to Seattle, if you take the toll roads.

Pro-life scientists don't necessarily have a problem using fetal tissue for research. A position statement from the Christian Medical & Dental Association declares, "CMDA does not oppose the use of the tissues of spontaneously aborted, non-viable fetuses, with parental consent, for research or transplantation." The problem is when tissue comes from elective abortions, and there the rules become difficult to follow.

In 1992 President George H.W. Bush attempted to establish tissue banks using only tissue from miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies, but the Clinton administration abandoned that approach the following year. Clinton also reversed a Reagan-era moratorium on funding for "therapeutic" fetal tissue transplantation that aim to cure diseases. The policy has not changed since. Aborted fetuses may be used for therapeutic purposes as long as the tissue is freely donated by women following their decision to terminate.

From 1993 to 2009, according to the most recently filed reports WORLD obtained, the NIH granted $14.8 million for therapeutic research. Two major projects included trials in which doctors transplanted brain tissue from aborted fetuses into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients. The experiments were largely unsuccessful-in fact, some patients' condition grew worse after treatment. Therapeutic funding exceeded $1 million a year from 1994 to 2001, but declined sharply thereafter, when the results of the Parkinson's trials became known.

Institutions that receive funding are expected to police themselves and assure the government they will abide by federal and state laws. During one of the Parkinson's trials, conducted at the University of Colorado, the Department of Health and Human Services learned that a woman who donated fetal tissue to the project hadn't been properly informed of the medical or privacy risks of donation, contrary to federal law. According to a 2002 determination letter, the university cooperated in resolving the problem.

The same strict requirements of informed consent don't necessarily apply to nontherapeutic research, however. And the NIH spends much more for nontherapeutic purposes: Added to therapeutic spending, the agency granted $182 million for 404 "human fetal tissue" projects between 2008 and 2010 alone. The projects studied HIV, stem cells, eye diseases, and other issues, sometimes with the help of tissue from donated fetuses-but not always: One project labeled "human fetal tissue" simply studied the safety of a drug on infants in Botswana who had been exposed to HIV in the womb.

According to a government audit back in 2000, NIH-supported researchers were acquiring about 4,000 fetal tissue samples a year at the time, sometimes paying a fee. Many ordered tissue from central supply organizations (including Zielke's bank and the University of Washington's birth defects lab), but others had arrangements with hospitals and private clinics. In 2006 a medical journal reported that the availability of all human tissues had declined due to rising procurement costs, and noted that pharmaceutical companies "now compete with academic research centers for tissues."

Fetal remains also are in demand in Britain, where, similar to the United States, no formal stats on donations are kept. In a survey published three years ago, Julie Kent, a professor from the University of the West of England, found some surprising practices: At least one abortion clinic altered its termination method in order to preserve specimens, extracting the fetus with a syringe instead of a vacuum to avoid macerating the tissue. In another case, a clinic collected cells during the abortion procedure "by inserting a cannula into the woman's uterus and the fetal heart," which, the clinical scientist involved admitted, "may hasten its death."

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