HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Recycling Ourselves

Blood, marrow, livers, kidneys, eggs, sperm – we adeptly recycle chunks of ourselves, distributed through a hodgepodge of market-mechanisms. While living, we can donate a chunk out of familial affection, or altruism. We can be forced to donate – the plight of prisoners in some awful spots. Or, driven more by poverty than greed, we can sell our innards – a black market crosses national boundaries in cyberspace. Indeed, the terms “egg donors” and “sperm donors” have entered the lexicon – again, paid and altruistic.

The market includes dead donors. All of us are encouraged – as a final act of life – to sign organ donor cards, letting a physician “harvest” something still viable – maybe a kidney, a heart, a cornea – from our corpses. Again, thanks to the international market of cyberspace, these are probably bought and sold, too.

These recycled parts sustain other people.

Just as crucially, these parts bolster research. Scientists use them to study how our bodies work. The goal: better treatments, better medications, maybe “cures.”

The stem cell is particularly valuable, since it has not yet developed. For decades, scientists have used cells from aborted fetuses to develop vaccines for rubella, chicken pox, and polio — vaccines that have saved the lives of millions of children. Our parents, our children, our grandchildren – generations to come – are the beneficiaries. Recently, a zealous undercover photographer taped a callous Planned Parenthood staff member discussing the dispersal of aborted fetuses, offhand, as though they were the commodities that we don’t like to think them. Cruel? Absolutely! Deplorable? Yes. But the coldly cavalier banter that has fueled politicians’ anger at Planned Parenthood has overshadowed a reality: scientists use these cells, have used them for years, hope to continue to use them.

The recent outrage is recent. In 1988 a Fetal Transplantation Tissue panel, convened by President Reagan, voted 19 to 0 to allow the use of fetal tissue. The panel, which included people against abortion, found no evidence of a dire plot: ghoulish abortionists were not propelling women to have abortions, to yield fetuses for scientists. Furthermore, the panel expressly banned the sale for profit of fetal tissue, as well as donations to one particular donee (another ghoulish scenario). The 1992 National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act allowed research with fetal tissues. In 1997 the Senate could have barred funds for research using aborted tissue in an amendment to the Udall Parkinson’s Research Act. It didn’t.

Some opponents of abortion have suggested that three-dimensional computer models might serve scientists better than fetal cells. Maybe in the future. But to date, scientists work with the real deal. And every patient, and future patient – whether the disease is diabetes, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s or any of the ills hovering over us – cheers them on. Even opponents of abortion might opt to take a vaccine developed from fetal research. Consider the vaccine for rubella. Is it morally ethical, if you oppose abortion, to use a vaccine derived from use of an aborted fetus? A Vatican commission, the Pontifical Academy for Life, found in 2005 that the duty to protect children prevailed, given no other protective option. Indeed, a parent who didn’t vaccinate a child might be putting other children at risk.

Abortion is legal. So long as women have abortions, there will be fetal remains. (The same holds for in vitro fertilization: physicians do not implant all the embryos.) As a society, we have several options. We can give the remains to the mother (cremated, perhaps, with the ashes in an urn); or we can give her the remains to inter, with a funeral service if she wishes. Of course, she may not want the objective memory of the pregnancy and abortion. In fact, most women would probably not take home the memento mori. In that case, the clinic has only a few choices: 1) bury the remains respectfully, with an anodyne prayer that won’t offend anybody’s sensibilities, but might calm irate politicians; 2) trash the remains; or 3) let researchers learn from them. Ironically, with the last option, the abortion ends up giving life to others.

People who loathe abortion, who think it should be absolutely illegal, no matter the circumstance, must acknowledge that the resulting tissue can be beacons of life-giving hope.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2016

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