Harvesting Fetal Body Parts

By Kelly Patricia O'Meara

[Reprinted with permission of Insight. Copyright 1999 New World Communication, Inc. All rights reserved.]

The distribution of fetal body parts to scientists is a million-dollar industry. Researchers claim it's a necessary evil, but others fear it may encourage some grim abuses.

Scientists depend on human body parts for research they believe may yield breakthroughs in a number of diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, that affect millions of people. But the public largely is unaware of the way the laundry list of body parts for scientific research is filled. Those who oppose using human flesh for research wonder if knowing the gruesome details would make a difference to those who support the practice.

Actual requests for body parts such as a "whole intact leg, including the entire hip joint," come with special instructions that the body be dissected by "cutting through symphysis pubis (pubic bone) and include whole illium." Additionally, a request may specify the speed at which the dissection must occur - - in this instance, that the researcher would like the body part "to be removed from the cadaver within 10 minutes." Finally, the scientists specify whether "abnormalities" are permitted and under what conditions a body part will be shipped (such as in wet or dry ice) and by what mode of transportation (usually one of the well-known overnight-delivery services).

Of more than 50 such requests, or "protocols," submitted by scientists and reviewed for this article, none involved a deceased person more than 24 weeks old - - three weeks older than a fetus who could survive outside the womb. The "whole intact leg" protocol described previously was requested by a scientist who needed four to six "specimens (leg and hip joints) per shipment" from aborted fetuses 22 to 24 weeks old. Because the request called for the dissection to occur within 10 minutes of death, it is not difficult to imagine the required precision and speed of the dissection procedure occurring in a side room of an abortion clinic.

The men and women who perform these tasks are called " technicians" and are employed by companies that retrieve body parts, also known as "harvesters," such as the Anatomic Gift Foundation of Laurel, Md., and Opening Lines, headquartered in West Frankfort, Ill. These companies act as middlemen of sorts between the abortion clinic and the scientist.

Because the sale of human tissue or body parts is prohibited by federal law, the traffickers have worked out an arrangement to expedite the process from which they all benefit and still remain within current interpretations of the law. For instance, the harvesters receive the fetal material as a " donation" from the abortion clinic. In return, the clinic is paid a "site fee" for rental of lab space where technicians, employed by the harvesters, perform as many dissections as necessary to fill researcher manifests. The harvesters then "donate" the body parts to the researchers and, rather than pay the harvesters for the actual body parts, "donate" the cost of the retrieval (a service) via a formal price list.

The fiction is that under this mutually acceptable agreement, no laws are broken: No body parts from aborted fetuses are sold. In nearly all cases, the entire fetus is not needed. Rather, the fetus is dissected and the parts shipped to either the private corporation, university, or government agency where the research is being conducted. Any remaining skin, tissue, bones, or organs are ground up in the sink disposal or incinerated.

Brenda Bardsley, vice president of the Anatomic Gift Foundation, or AGF, tells Insight, "It's sad, but maybe it makes it [abortion] easier for us knowing that something good will come out of it." She adds, "We're doing our best in an unpleasant situation." Bardsley says the AGF's fetal-tissue retrieval accounts for "less than 10 percent of the company's business" and there are strict rules controlling when and under what conditions a technician may perform the procedures. "The decision to go ahead with the abortion," says Bardsley, "must be made before the woman is approached about donation, and we don't get access to the cadaver until the physician has firmly established death." Nearly 75 percent of the women who choose abortion agree to donate the fetal tissue, she says.

As part of AGF's services, it also runs serology (blood tests) on women who have elected to have an abortion and requires that the medical director of the clinic advise such women if they are shown by the tests to have other medical conditions such as AIDS, hepatitis B or C, or syphilis.

Along with its fetal-tissue harvesting, AGF also handles adult tissue. According to Bardsley, this is their main business, and they handle "only about five to 10 fetal-tissue procedures a week from two different clinics." AGF charges a flat fee of as much as $280 per specimen or individual body part. According to tax records provided to Insight by Bardsley, AGF's gross income has increased from a little more than $180,000 in 1994 to $2 million in 1998.

While AGF charges for "services" per specimen, competitor Opening Lines, a company that handles only fetal tissue, was unavailable for comment. According to a fee schedule provided to the pro-life organization Life Dynamics Inc., of Denton, Texas, Opening Lines does not confuse its customers by using the word " specimen" but openly lists charges by the body part. For instance, it may charge as little as $150 for the retrieval of a liver or $500 for a trunk (with or without limbs); a spinal cord goes for $325.

The sale of "services" in the acquisition of body parts exploded after President Clinton signed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, effectively lifting the moratorium on federally funded research involving transplantation of fetal tissue from spontaneous or induced abortions. The taxpayer-funded legislation specifically allows for "research on the transplantation of human fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes." Since then, a rare breed of entrepreneurs have battled for a foothold in the newly created market of organ harvesting.

Company pamphlets and paraphernalia from Opening Lines, for example, boast that it is their "goal to offer you and your staff the highest quality, most affordable and freshest tissue prepared to your specifications and delivered in the quantities you need when you need it." Their advertisements add such sales puffery as: "Our specimens vary widely in range including but not limited to those listed below: liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines, kidney, brain, lungs and heart block, spinal column and many more with appropriate discounts that apply if specimen is significantly fragmented." A veritable smorgasbord of human body parts is on the menu, and the researcher need only order what he or she wants.

How profitable is all of this? The consulting firm of Frost and Sullivan recently reported that "the worldwide market for cell lines and tissue cultures brought in nearly $428 million in corporate revenues in 1996. It further predicts that between now and 2003, the market will grow at an average annual rate of 13.5 percent and, by 2002, will be worth nearly $1 billion." That does not include profits from patents and products that come from tissue research.

The National Institutes of Health provides nearly $19 million in grants and awards for fetal-tissue research, an amount that many in the scientific community consider budget dust compared with the $15.6 billion total 1999 appropriations. Of the $19 million, $2 million goes directly to research that is connected with fetal-tissue transplantation.

Many pro-life advocates object to the use of taxpayer funds for fetal-tissue research. For instance, they say that scientists might become dependent on such tissue simply because of the availability of it. Furthermore, they say, because women who have made a decision to undergo an abortion now may donate their fetus for research, the social, ethical, and moral stigma attached to the act is reduced because the patients believe they ultimately are doing something good.

Supply and demand are factors. Robert Orr, a physician and director of clinical ethics at Loma Linda Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif., says he understands the use of spontaneously aborted fetuses for research purposes, but "policymakers and researchers are looking at aborted fetuses because there is such a large supply. The basic problem is that we're at the cutting edge of research. We have something that looks good on paper - - something that may be very important to humanity. Before we go any further and rush into something, we need to step back and take a second look."

Orr notes the problem of intention: "If a woman thinks that something good is coming out of the abortion, it makes it easier for her to make the decision. It's theoretically impossible to separate the moral issue from the scientific issue."

Similar sentiments are voiced by Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who is a staunch pro-life advocate. Hyde tells Insight: "I deplore any medical procedure that treats human beings as chattel, as a subject fit for harvesting. The humanity of every fetus should be respected and treated with dignity and not like a laboratory animal." The fact remains, though, that it's legal, and 1.5 million abortions are performed every year in the United States.

It's legal, and tens of thousands of body parts from aborted babies are used in scientific research. It's true, too, that our laws provide no human-being status to an unborn baby. But despite this, unborn babies are considered human for the purpose of scientific experimentation." Suzanne Rini, author of Beyond Abortion, says this is an issue "that never ceases to shock me. Fetal-tissue harvesting is a very lucrative industry, and just a small percentage of research could yield huge profits. Billions are involved in fetal-tissue research and harvesting, and the federal government participates in it in a big way. But it's also very shielded, and one has to try to understand the everydayness of it - - the foundational step in the process of abortion and fetal harvesting."

What are the ethics of this? Rini laughs dryly. "If they're doing it, there is no ethics."

Harvesting Baby Body Parts