Aborted fetuses are being dissected alive, harvested and sold in pieces to fuel a vast research enterprise
By Celeste McGovern
The doctor walked into the lab and set a steel pan on the table. “Got you some good specimens,” he said. “Twins.” The technician looked down at a pair of perfectly formed 24-week-old fetuses moving and gasping for air. Except for a few nicks from the surgical tongs that had pulled them out, they seemed uninjured.
“There’s something wrong here,” the technician stammered. “They are moving. I don’t do this. That’s not in my contract.” She watched the doctor take a bottle of sterile water and fill the pan until the water ran up over the babies’ mouths and noses. Then she left the room. “I would not watch those fetuses moving,” she recalls. “That’s when I decided it was wrong.”
The technician uses the pseudonym “Kelly.” She has her back to the camera, she wears a wig, and her voice is electronically modified because she says she fears for her life. Until a few months ago Kelly worked for a Maryland company called the Anatomic Gift Foundation. Her job was to procure fetal tissue for research. She worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic that was also a member of the National Abortion Federation. Her interview appears on the May issue of “Life Talk” video magazine–the first of a monthly series of videos released by Life Dynamics Inc., a renegade pro-life group based in Denton, Texas, that admits to having spies work in abortion clinics to uncover their most closely guarded secrets.
This week the group is releasing the documentary evidence it has gathered since Kelly approached them nearly two years ago. Life Dynamics has dozens of order forms from researchers requesting fetal parts, price lists for fetal organs and tissue, and donation consent forms for women undergoing abortion. It offers a gruesome glimpse at a vast trade in human tissue from babies that are aborted, and sometimes vivisected, to satiate the exploding multibillion-dollar biotechnology industry.
The traffic in tissue flows worldwide into respected tax- funded laboratories, including Canadian ones. The research itself is usually for laudable goals, from helping prenatal infants survive to curing Parkinson’s disease. But the trade, worth billions, raises myriad ethical questions: Are some humans being killed to benefit others? Are women being exploited to support tissue collection? Who is profiting from the trade? And what are the social implications of its existence?
Once the stuff of cheap science-fiction, human clones, artificial wombs and human-animal cross-species are all now serious possibilities. Sexless procreation is already a reality with in vitro fertilization. Selective breeding of human beings is commonplace thanks to embryo screening and “genetic terminations.” And human-human brain cell transplants are government-funded. All of these endeavours rely on aborted fetuses.
Scientists have used fetal tissue in research since at least the 1930s, says Pittsburgh researcher Suzanne Rini, author of the 1993 book Beyond Abortion: A Chronicle of Fetal Experimentation. Thirty years ago, as abortion laws were relaxing and some second- and third-trimester abortions were performed by hysterotomy (essentially a Caesarean section), experiments on live fetuses were cutting-edge technology. Geoffrey Chamberlain received a professional award for research (outlined in the March 1968 issue of The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology) in which he took live aborted fetuses, attached them to an artificial placenta, perfused them to see if he could make them live, and then pulled the plug on them. No one objected.
It was shortly after that article, Mrs. Rini notes, that the Cambridge Evening Post featured a story on Lawrence Lawn, a physician who did manage to provoke controversy when it was learned that he was procuring live fetuses from a private abortion clinic. “We are simply allowing something which is destined for the incinerator to benefit mankind,” he said, obliging a photographer with a picture of himself standing next to a dying fetus suspended in a perfusion tank. Yet even Dr. Lawn believed there were limits. “Of course we would not dream of experimenting with a viable child. We would not consider that to be right.”
With the decriminalization of abortion in the 1970s, fetal research became, in the words one ethicist, a “golden opportunity” for researchers. The public almost never heard about fetal experimentation. But by the 1980s, some of the most macabre research was being publicly funded. Mrs. Rini catalogues experiments ranging from the perfusion of impaled beating fetal hearts with adrenaline and caffeine to eye-tissue transplants and skin grafting. Dr. Bernard Gondos of the University of Connecticut at Farmington, whose research on fetal gonads described most of his specimens as “previable dead,” lamented having to import fetuses from outside the United States. Dr. Karen Holbrook of the University of Washington received a $239,740 grant in 1984-85 for her work on “Fetal Skin Biology” using first-, second- and third-trimester human fetuses. She told Mrs. Rini: “Hopefully they are not born alive. It’s better to avoid that. The skin is taken after fetal demise.” Asked if the skin diseases she was trying to diagnose prenatally were fatal, Dr. Holbrook replied, “No, but they ruin your life.”
By the 1980s transplants had become entrenched, and fetal tissue, which grows quickly and is less likely to trigger an immune reaction in a host, became even more coveted. Fetal tissue transplants became part of efforts to treat diabetes, Huntington’s disease, blindness, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia and more. In 1988, U.S. president George Bush banned federal funding of fetal human-to-human transplants. This move was widely mistaken for a ban on all fetal tissue research; in fact, most such research carried on unimpeded. In any case, Bill Clinton’s first official act as president in 1993 was to strike down the ban. People were demanding to be “treated” with fetuses. California lawyer Joan Samuelson had founded the Parkinson Action Network (PAN) in 1990 to lobby for an end to the moratorium. “Will lifting the ban save us in time?” she asked when it was abolished, and she began lobbying for an accelerated grant review process for fetal-tissue transplant research.
Transplants of brain tissue from young fetuses (usually aborted at less than 10 weeks) into Parkinson’s sufferers have attracted the most public attention to fetal tissue research. In 1990 the results of Olle Lindvall’s research team’s transplants into four Swedish patients were hailed as “promising” because one recipient appeared to have benefited remarkably. The other patients were not monitored long enough to determine the grafts’ effects.
Neuroscientists presenting findings at the XIII International Congress on Parkinson’s Disease in Vancouver last month sounded optimistic, but their data was not the knockout blow Parkinson’s researchers have been hoping for. Thomas Freeman of the University of South Florida reported that 360 patients have received human tissue transplants in 17 centres worldwide to date. But the variables researchers use to evaluate success differ so widely as to be incomparable, so he focused on the results of his own “open trial” on six patients, which he admitted was open to placebo effects and observer bias. The only fetal tissue transplant study to be performed with a control group so far was published in April by Curt Freed of the University of Colorado and Stanley Fahn of Columbia Presbyterian. They followed two sets of patients: those who actually received neural fetal cells and those who had their heads opened for a sham surgery in an attempt to eliminate the placebo effect.
Although the Medical Post headlined the research story “Parkinson’s progress,” and the New York Times proclaimed, “Hints of success in fetal cell transplants,” Dr. Paul Ranalli, a professor of neurology at the University of Toronto, calls the research “hugely unimpressive.” The only benefits were bestowed on patients under age 60, he notes, and the vast majority of Parkinson’s patients are senior citizens. Even in those cases, he adds, “a magnifying glass is required to discern any functional benefit.”
What is more, Dr. Fahn told the Vancouver congress that he was disturbed by an unexpected outcome of the trial: facial “runaway dyskinesias” (involuntary muscle movements) which were particularly severe in the younger patients. Other researchers have noted similar findings, says Dr. Freeman. As with drugs, there could be a dose at which fetal cells “may be harmful,” he said.
Procedures on more Parkinson’s patients will help clarify these findings. Dr. Freeman told the attendees that Canada is leading the way in these experiments, primarily at the lab of Dr. Ivar Mendez at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Dr. Mendez, who declined an interview last week, received a $90,042 grant from the Medical Research Council of Canada for 1999-2000. His transplant data is anticipated soon.
At the advent of the new millennium it is “pleuripotent” embryonic stem cells that are at the forefront of fetal tissue research. Ethicists arealready distinguishing between using human embryos “left over” from in vitro fertilization and humans created specifically for research. “Farmed” embryos are capable of differentiating into many types of tissue and are being hailed as new sources for whole organs for donation, and for human clones.
As bright as all the research may sound, others discern a darker side. There is no law on fetal tissue collection–only guidelines. Researchers are free to hold to them or ignore them. And where laws do exist–such as the ones against infanticide and the sale of human tissue–there are ways around them, and they are sometimes broken outright.
Kelly explains that the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic she was working in received a service fee from the Anatomic Gift Foundation for its tissue “donations.” “We were never employees of the abortion clinic,” she explains. “We would have a contract with an abortion clinic that would allow us to go in…[to] procure fetal tissue for research. We would get a generated list each day to tell us what tissue researchers, pharmaceuticals and universities were looking for. Then we would go and look at the particular patient charts–we had to screen out anyone who had STDs or fetal anomalies. These had to be the most perfect specimens we could give these researchers for the best value that we could sell for.”
Probably only 10% of fetuses were ruled out for anomalies, she adds. The rest were “healthy donors.”
Fetuses ranged in age from seven weeks to 30 weeks and beyond. Typically, Kelly harvested tissue from 30 to 40 “late” fetuses each week. “We were taking eyes, livers, brains, thymuses, and especially cardiac blood…even blood from the limbs that we would get from the veins,” she says.
Researchers used their own shipping firms–“UPS, Fedex or a special courier,” she adds. “We would take it in a box and put it on as regular cargo. Sometimes it would be an intact fetus or it might be a batch of eyes or 30 to 40 livers going out that day, or thymuses. Whatever it was, there were mass quantities of it going out.” To support this claim, Life Dynamics provides copies of dozens of order forms for fetal parts from North American researchers. They contain names of researchers, universities and pharmaceutical companies, day and evening telephone numbers, courier account numbers, the type of tissue requested, preferred gestational age of the fetus, and other details.
A sample, from a scientist studying the “Biochemical Characterization of human type X Collagen,” requests “Whole intact leg, include entire hip joint, 22-24 weeks gest.” The extractor is directed to “dissect by cutting through symphasis pubis and include whole Illium [hip joint]. To be removed from fetal cadaver within 10 minutes.”
One order form carries the name of the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Vanugram Venkatesh alongside a request for an international Fedex shipment of “16-24 week lungs (trachea not required)” to study “molecular mechanisms of fluid reabsorption in human fetal lung.” “Significance: Respiratory Distress Syndrome…a major cause of death in premature infants.” The memo adds: “Bill our account.”
Contacted last week at his Vancouver office, Dr. Vankatesh said that he did do research on immature lungs two years ago, with a Medical Research Council grant, at the B.C. Children’s Hospital. But he added, “I don’t do that anymore.” Asked if he used human tissue, he replied, “Yeah,” then changed his mind. “Well, we were doing genetics mainly…Where are you getting your information? We were using cell lines.” Asked if he had ever ordered fetal lungs from the U.S., he said, “I have to go,” and hung up abruptly.
“These researchers don’t want to see the whole baby,” says Life Dynamics’ Dzintra Tuttle. “That’s gruesome. That would freak them out. They think they’re about higher medicine that is serving a cause–not about dead babies.” On their video, Life Dynamics asks Kelly if the abortionist at the clinic ever deliberately altered procedure to procure tissue. “Yes,” she replies. “All the limbs, the arms, the head, the chest cavity were never invaded. They were all completely intact. Sometimes, the fetus appeared to be dead, but when you’d open up the chest cavity you’d see the heart beating.”
The clinic used the partial-birth abortion technique for later pregnancies: the doctor grasps hold of a fetus leg with tongs and pulls the entire baby, except for the head, feet-first and face down out of the mother. Then he punctures the base of the skull with scissors, inserts a cannula to suck out the brain, and slides the head out. It is a three-day procedure requiring that women be inserted with laminaria, seaweed cervix dilators, beforehand.
Were women ever coerced into the procedure? Kelly says that sometimes, before the final surgery, on the third day “you could blatantly hear them in the halls saying they wanted to change their minds.” But they were sedated, in what Kelly calls a “Nyquil nap,” which made it difficult to protest. Sometimes the IV was turned up; in any case, the woman always had the abortion.
Routinely, the women would go into labour before the final surgery. “They were coming out alive,” says Kelly. Aside from the incident with the twins, she says, there were three to four live births in a typical two-week period. “The doctor would either break the neck or take a pair of tongs and basically beat the fetus until it was dead.”
As incredible as Kelly’s testimony seems, other sources corroborate it. Eric Harrah worked in the abortion industry for 11 years, leaving it 18 months ago. He managed and owned or partially owned 26 American abortion clinics. Live births, he tells Life Dynamics, were the industry’s “dirty little secret.” “It was always very disturbing, so the doctor would try to conceal it from the rest of the staff,” he says, but one incident is hard for him to forget.
The woman in question was 26 weeks pregnant. She had laminaria inserted, signed paperwork agreeing not to call anyone but the clinic if she went into labour, and was sent to a motel up the road to await her procedure the next day. She was brought to the clinic in the middle of the night, carrying her fetus in a white cotton hotel towel.
“I was in the scrub room when I saw the towel move,” says Mr. Harrah. “A nurse said, ‘Eric, you’re just tired. It’s three in the morning.’ Then we both looked and a little baby’s arm raised up out of the towel and was moving like a newborn baby. I screamed and ran out. The doctor came in and closed the door and when we went back in to process the baby out of the clinic into the lab, [the baby] had a puncture wound in his chest.”
Evidence of the demand for late-term fetal tissue can be corroborated apart from Life Dynamics. The National Institutes for Health operate a Laboratory for Embryology at the University of Washington in Seattle that runs a 24-hour collection service at abortion clinics. An advertisement in the March 1994 NIH Guide still appears on the Internet, offering to “supply tissue from normal or abnormal embryos and fetuses of desired gestational ages between 40 days and term. Specimens are obtained within minutes of passage… and immediately processed according to the requirements of individual investigators…Specimens are shipped by overnight express.”
Mark Crutcher, president of Life Dynamics, is now convinced that the research demand for intact late-term fetal organs is the hidden truth behind the partial-birth abortion controversy. In state after state this year, partial-birth abortion bans written into state laws by legislatures have been vehemently opposed by pro-choice groups and overturned by courts. “Why do pro-aborts fight so hard to keep it?” asks Mr. Crutcher. “All it says is you can’t kill them by this method. It doesn’t prevent them from getting any other kind of abortion. This is about maximizing profits. First, you sell the woman an abortion. Then you turn around and sell the dead baby you take out of her. But you have to take it out whole or you don’t have anything to sell.”
“It has nothing to do with the woman’s right to choose or with protecting the sanctity of the right of abortion,” agrees Mr. Harrah. “It has everything to do with protecting the sanctity of the fullness of the abortionist’swallet. This is the only type of abortion procedure that doesn’t cost them to get rid of the dead baby. They actually make money.”
Apart from abortionists and the wholesalers who traffic in aborted baby parts (see story, page 34), who stands to profit from this fetal research? Of the pharmaceutical companies sponsoring it, Mr. Crutcher says: “I don’t think there’s one that’s not involved.” He surmises they are investing in the future. Baby boomers are aging, and about to start falling apart. A practical treatment for Parkinson’s would be lucrative. “Just look at Viagra,” says Mr. Crutcher. (In Canada alone, the little blue impotence pill sold 20,600 prescriptions worth $1.55 million in its first week on the market) “That’s just a hint of the fortunes awaiting drug manufacturers pandering to boomers’ quest for youth. They’re the wealthiest generation in the history of the world. And also the most narcissistic. They want to live forever.”
And fetuses are the new human scrap heap. Says Mr. Crutcher: “We’re going to kill the very young to treat the very old.” Perhaps, but Mrs. Rini offers hope of a wrinkle in the plan. “Does the fetus’ aliveness, which is coveted by researchers, and ability to sponsor life for others, ironically but actually prove the fetus’ own life?” she writes. She cites ethicist Paul Ramsey: “Far from abortion settling the question of fetal research, it could be that sober reflection on the use of the human fetus in research could unsettle the abortion issue.”
Steven Bamforth is a geneticist who operates a fetal tissue repository at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. He and his researchers have the difficult task of sorting through 10- to 12-week fetal remains from abortion clinics in Edmonton and Winnipeg, dissecting recognizable body parts for hearts and eyes, extracting messenger ribonucleic acid and shipping it to other geneticists at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia. “The humanity is always before us,” Dr. Bamforth told this magazine last year. “If society said this research is not acceptable, of course, we would immediately desist. It’s not something that I do happily.”
This article was first published in Alberta Report Newsmagazine, August 23, 1999
BC Report Newsmagazine August 30, 1999