Brave New Harvest

Fetal-cell transplants can help victims of debilitating disease. But is the price too high?
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Fetal-cell transplants can help victims of debilitating disease. But is the price too high?

Wednesday and Thursday mornings, medical technician Lisa Norris drives from her job at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver to a local abortion clinic and dissects the remains of aborted fetuses. She is looking for the pancreas, the gland that produces insulin. After “harvesting” pancreases from a number of fetuses, she takes them back to her lab at the university, which has become the national hub for fetal-tissue research. There, she minces the tissue and further prepares it for surgery.

In surgery, doctors tuck this insulin-producing tissue beneath the surface of the kidney in a patient suffering from diabetes. If the graft works, the cells will begin producing natural insulin, furnishing the patient with an improved ability to process and regulate sugars in her body, thereby improving her overall health. Surgeons have performed similar operations for Parkinson’s disease sufferers, and researchers are currently investigating whether such implants might also help schizophrenics, Alzheimer’s patients, and victims of spinal-cord injuries.

Norris, who describes herself as “prolife” and a “strong Christian,” says the issues of abortion and fetal-cell implants are separate and ethically unrelated to each other. “We’re trying to derive some benefit out of this situation. That’s how I justify it,” she says. Most ethicists agree with her. But are abortion and fetal-cell implants really separate issues? Should human suffering be a society’s controlling concern in deciding whether to use new medical technologies? Are these new technologies dependent ...

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