Retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson has claimed that most medical research can be conducted without using fetal tissue, which has been in the news recently after a series of secretly taped but heavily edited videos showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing how to legally provide aborted tissue to researchers. He has called the benefits of such research “over promised,” and has said the videos have made him wonder “how far we have drifted in terms of our humanity.”
But according to Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB-GYN and pain medicine physician, the anti-abortion candidate published a study with three other colleagues in 1992 that described using “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”
She wrote on her blog:
As a neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson knows full well that fetal tissue is essential for medical research. His discipline would have a hard time being were it is today without that kind of work. What is even more egregious than dismissing the multitude of researchers whose work allowed him to become a neurosurgeon is the hypocrisy of actually having done that research himself while spouting off about its supposed worthlessness.
Last month, Carson railed against Planned Parenthood and pro-choice advocates by describing a fetus in the 17th week of gestation as a “human being… with a nice little nose and little fingers and hands and the heart’s beating.”
Carson defended his seemingly hypocritical stance in The Washington Post on Thursday:
“You have to look at the intent,” Carson said before beginning a campaign swing through New Hampshire. “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.”
If you had to reread that once or twice, you’re not alone.
Carson appears to be saying that the fetal tissue he used for research didn’t come from fetuses aborted specifically for use in medical research. He also appears to accuse Planned Parenthood of doing just that. But that’s a claim that Planned Parenthood has flatly rejected and that is not backed up by any evidence. In other words, Carson is trying to make a distinction where none exists.
Fetal tissue has been used for a variety of purposes, including research on an Ebola vaccine, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, paralysis and HIV. Donating fetal tissue, as Planned Parenthood does, is legal in the United States, but selling fetal tissue for profit is illegal.
Last month, several videos from anti-choice activists showed Planned Parenthood officials talking about using fetal tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research. The videos were deceptively edited to make it appear as if Planned Parenthood employees were attempting to sell fetal tissue, but the entire video clearly shows that the discussion was about legal tissue donation.
That didn’t stop Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail from coming down hard on Planned Parenthood, promising to strip the organization of its federal funding for birth control, STI testing and treatment, and other essential health services (none of that funding goes toward abortion). Some candidates have even gone as far as threatening to shut down the government to keep Planned Parenthood from receiving any funding.
Carson was among those deriding the organization, telling Fox News’s Megyn Kelly that fetal tissue research was basically useless and the same things could be accomplished without it.
On Thursday, however, Carson told The Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel that the use of fetal tissue shouldn’t be banned and declined to say whether Planned Parenthood should stop providing fetal tissue for medical research. So one one hand, Carson said the use of fetal tissue doesn’t produce results and is interchangeable with other materials, and on the other he used it himself and now says it shouldn’t be banned. Yet, at the same time, Carson supports defunding Planned Parenthood for their participation in legal fetal tissue donation programs.
Meanwhile, medical experts say that fetal tissue samples remain essential for research, allowing them to study the development of the human body in order to create better treatments for degenerative diseases. Material from aborted fetuses was also instrumental in the development of major vaccines, including those that protect against polio, rubella, mumps, measles, chicken pox, rabies and hepatitis. Although scientific advances — particularly the development of pluripotent stem cells — may one day allow researchers to replace fetal tissue with other materials, much more work remains to be done before that can happen. In the meantime, though, scientists say we can’t afford to stop working on lifesaving fetal tissue experiments.
As bioethicist Alta Charo wrote this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, standing in the way of fetal tissue research is an immoral position because that opposition undermines scientific developments that could save many lives:
Virtually every person in this country has benefited from research using fetal tissue. Every child who’s been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us (and give even the unvaccinated the benefit of herd immunity). This work has been going on for nearly a century, and the vaccines it produced have been in use nearly as long. Any discussion of the ethics of fetal tissue research must begin with its unimpeachable claim to have saved the lives and health of millions of people.