Ben Carson’s Blind Spot?

The candidate's position on fetal tissue

The viral undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood officials offhandedly — and, activists allege, illegally — discussing the sale of tissue and organs from aborted fetuses for medical research have landed like a bomb in the middle of the business-as-usual abortion debate.

But uncontrolled detonations can hit unintended targets, and in this case the latest appears to be Ben Carson, the Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon who last week was shown to have used tissue from aborted fetuses in research he performed in the 1990s.

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Carson responded to the revelation by defending his actions in an interview with Dave Weigel of the Washington Post.

“You have to look at the intent,” Carson said before beginning a campaign swing through New Hampshire late last week. “To willfully ignore evidence that you have for some ideological reason is wrong. If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it.”

Not so, say Christian ethicists who share Carson’s opposition to abortion. If a pregnancy is deliberately terminated, they say, it doesn’t matter if it was ended to generate fetal tissue or for another reason; using the product of such a decision is always wrong.

“If you’re killing babies and taking the tissue, that’s a very different thing than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it.”

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The dispute could become a political problem for Carson as he becomes a factor in the crowded GOP field. Along with his rivals, Carson has condemned Planned Parenthood over the videos. He also said that fetal tissue was not necessary for medical research.

A blogger this week unearthed a 1992 paper that Carson co-authored, in which he described how researchers used tissue “from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”

Carson on Thursday told Weigel that he did not think fetal tissue research should be banned or that it was immoral, though that appears to contradict his earlier statement about the lack of value in fetal tissue.

Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, a denomination with a somewhat nuanced position on abortion. His ethical views have tended to track those of other Christian abortion opponents. And when he says that using fetal tissue for research is not immoral, he seems to be on solid ground, even with Christian medical ethicists who oppose abortion. They note that with proper consent, fetal tissue from miscarriages, for example, can be used by researchers.

But when Carson argues that using tissue even from deliberately aborted fetuses is OK, he seems to be going against what most anti-abortion ethicists argue.

For example, in a detailed paper, “The Ethics of Fetal Tissue Transplantation,” from the Charlotte-based Christian Research Institute, Scott Rae examines all the arguments for using tissue from induced abortions and finds them lacking.

The reasoning that the fetus is already dead so it might as well be used for “good” is especially dangerous, Rae argues, because it could provide incentives for abortion and leads to a “slippery slope” scenario.

In a recent issue of the “Human Life Review,” a publication that opposes abortion, Joan Frawley Desmond also examines the growing debate over using fetal tissue in research and notes that “opponents of abortion worry that the good achieved by donating fetal tissue for implantation may help to alleviate guilt about the means used to produce the tissue. The procedure could actually help to legitimize abortion.”

That is also the concern of the Catholic Church, which has perhaps the most detailed and long-standing guidelines on medical ethics and clearly prohibits tissue donation from deliberately aborted fetuses.

“The prohibition does not include fetuses that were miscarried, as long as permission is given after informed consent of the parent(s),” the Rev. Thomas Nairn, director of ethics for the Catholic Health Association, wrote in an email. “This has been pretty straightforward within the recent tradition.”

Nairn cited the ethical directives formulated by Catholic Health Australia. Directive 3.27 states: “Though embryonic and fetal tissues may have various advantages in transplantation over tissue taken from mature human beings, great care must be taken with respect to the sources of such materials. To take tissue from a live fetus for transplantation is unethical. Great care must be taken to ensure that all cadaveric fetal tissue to be used for transplantation is derived from natural miscarriages or from ethically obtained cell lines.”

“The use of tissue or organs from an infant may be permitted after death has been determined and with the informed consent of the parents or guardians.”

Edward Furton, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, agreed.

Furton noted that Directive 65 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states: “The use of tissue or organs from an infant may be permitted after death has been determined and with the informed consent of the parents or guardians.”

But the following directive says: “Catholic healthcare institutions should not make use of human tissue obtained by direct abortions even for research and therapeutic purposes.”

“Materials licitly collected following spontaneous abortion or natural miscarriage are perfectly acceptable for use if there is appropriate informed consent,” Furton added in an email. “Catholics welcome and support the donation of tissues and organs when appropriate moral protocols are followed for the sake of advancing research in medicine.”

This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.

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