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Let’s Remember Why Fetal Tissue Research Is So Important – And Why The GOP Supported It Until Now

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Much to do has been made about the illegally-recorded videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), claiming to show that Planned Parenthood “traffics” fetal tissues and organs. As we now know, those videos showed nothing of the sort. But what they did show was just how protected (oblivious?) Americans have been from thinking about how vaccines that saved their lives and those of their children were actually developed.

Remember polio — that highly contagious viral illness that causes paralysis? The Mayo Clinic describes the symptoms like this: “within a week.. signs and symptoms specific to paralytic polio appear, including: Loss of reflexes. Severe muscle aches or weakness. Loose and floppy limbs (flaccid paralysis), often worse on one side of the body.”

Indeed, the disease wreaked so much havoc on the body, that the Centers for Disease Control urges caution before looking at the disturbing images. The disease devastated whole communities; parents were afraid to allow their children out of the house. Jonas Salk and other researchers desperately raced to find a cure. Ultimately, that Nobel Prize-winning vaccine was developed through research using fetal kidney cells.

But that vaccine didn’t only save kids: According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “15-35 percent of adults may die because they become unable to breathe” if they contract polio. When faced with such odds, was it barbarian to conduct ethically sound research on donated fetal tissue?

Sadly, it turns out some Americans and our members of Congress are naïve about polio’s cure being bound up in fetal tissue and fetal organ research. Similarly, rubella, chicken pox, rabies, mumps, measles and shingles vaccines were also developed through the use of fetal tissue from terminated pregnancies.

So how many lives have been saved in the U.S. and around the globe through vaccination? The CDC estimates that vaccinations will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the U.S. over the last 20 years.

For polio alone, 13,000-20,000 cases were reported each year in the United States alone. Many of those children died. Worldwide, the polio vaccine saves the lives of an estimated 550,000 children annually.

And for chicken pox, the CDC reports that “before the vaccination program, about 4 million people in the United States got chickenpox, over 10,000 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died each year.” Our leading disease control arm of the government estimates that 3.5 million cases are prevented each year because of this vaccine — a 93 percent reduction since the vaccine was introduced in 1996.

Rubella? Thanks to the vaccine, we’ve just eliminated this disease from the America’s. Before widespread vaccination, rubella infection caused an estimated 11,000 miscarriages and stillbirths, and 20,000 births with congenital rubella syndrome each year in the U.S. Those numbers now hover close to zero.

I do public health research for a living, but you don’t have to take my word for it — here’s what our leading health care organization says: Check out page 352:

Modeling estimated that, among children born during 1994- 2013, vaccination will prevent an estimated 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths over the course of their lifetimes, at a net savings of $295 billion in direct costs and $1.38 trillion in total societal costs.

Going back a little further, the statistics become even more remarkable. Since 1924, vaccines have prevented more than 103 million cases of eight infectious diseases in the United States alone, according to 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

However, we need not look back that far to appreciate the critical choices made by Congress that have allowed for such advancements in human health. Even 20 years ago, anti-abortion members of Congress, including the Senate’s Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, along with Senator Dan Coates, and Senator Chuck Grassley robustly advocated for fetal tissue research.

Why? Because they knew it would be the next pathway for curing degenerative illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. Senator McConnell along with other senior Republican leaders fought bitterly against George H.W. Bush in 1992 to pass a law that would permit the use of fetal tissue in human research. President Bush vetoed their legislation.

However, anti-abortion Republican leaders fought back and in 1993 along with support from Democrats enacted the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act. This law allows for reimbursement for participation in fetal research programs — as the legislation states, it permits “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, and quality control or storage of human fetal tissue.”

The bill passed overwhelmingly. Their advocacy was no surprise: Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. One in three American seniors will die with this disease or another dementia. And this year alone, the disease will cost the U.S. $226 billion — a figure that is projected to rise to a staggering $1 trillion annually by 2050. At the time, Republican Sen. John McCain wrote, “My abhorrence for the practice of abortion is unquestionable. Yet my abhorrence for Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes [two other diseases for which fetal tissue research has proven invaluable] and the suffering they cause is just as strong.”

So what is the controversy really about? Do members of Congress who fought for and passed legislation to use fetal tissue in human research now want to stop the research and shut down the labs attempting to find treatments or a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease? Do Americans want that? And are those who are suddenly opposed to fetal tissue research going to start refusing medical treatments that were developed using this line of research?

Or is it just about shutting down Planned Parenthood? After all, that organization isn’t the only place where a woman can terminate a pregnancy nor where biobanks and researchers can acquire aborted fetal tissues. It is however, an irreplaceable source of low-cost preventive care for millions of American women and men.

There are a few things worth noting here.

The first is that this controversy exposes a serious knowledge gap. Americans want cures and to protect the health of their babies and children (as well they should), but don’t know from where the cures come and when told, don’t want to hear about it.

There’s a yuck factor and that reflects a historical norm as well as our greater fear of medical science; Americans were opposed to life insurance (they called it death insurance); early on there was opposition to organ transplantation; and folks in the U.S. were even skittish about blood transfusions. This paranoia was taken to an extreme when Americans opposed racially integrated swimming pools for “reasons of public health”.

A second issue is the irresponsible politicking around fetal tissue research. Science and medical research are not the domains for snappy sound bites, careless analogies, and reckless political posturing — after all, lives are at stake. These are serious, hard choices with far-reaching implications that have been made with bipartisan support to promote human tissue research and fetal tissue research in particular.

A third concern is that we have a choice — continue to save lives through human tissue research or shut it all down. But let’s not cherry pick by singling out one group; shut them all down if this is what Congress and the American public are really willing to risk. Let’s have a serious conversation about that rather than pretending that there aren’t serious collateral costs associated with ending fetal tissue research.

Indeed, where was the backbone among “pro-life” members of Congress who quaked in the face of propaganda videos, forgetting their own commitments to protecting the health and safety of babies, children and adults? Shame on them for compromising their integrity in the light of sophomoric videos by a fringe organization.

Fourth, altruism is absolutely illusory in the human tissue domain and nefarious stealing of tissue or obtaining it through shady means dominates the industry. For years, scientists and bioethicists have attempted to call attention to this. Ironically, members of Congress are condemning Planned Parenthood for following the very rules that Congress itself established. The organization seeks informed consent, transfers tissue, receives reimbursement, and tries to work with organizations attempting to find cures for debilitating conditions and deadly diseases.

And who is to bear the cost of harvesting, securing, and transferring the tissue that Congress wants researchers to use? If anything, forcing Planned Parenthood out of this domain will likely spur black market tissue selling rather than more transparent transactions.

There are more that 1.5 million allograft surgeries that take place each year in the U.S. and these tissues aren’t free. The bone industry alone makes more than $2 billion per year — and that doesn’t account for corneas, heart valves, organs, skin — all of which have price tags that make Planned Parenthood look like the only altruistic participant in the tissue supply chain. (It’s worth repeating here that Planned Parenthood does not profit from their participation in this research — in some cases, they may even be losing money.)

Consider this: human tissue harvesting, transferring, research, destruction, cloning and manipulation to create cell lines are a multi-billion dollar per year industry in the U.S. and members of Congress are fully aware, because it has passed laws to spur technological growth in this area.

These companies are so deeply embedded in the U.S. economy that they have shareholders, trade on stock exchanges, and boldly reference their profitability. Congress has received reports from internal agencies that make clear private, for-profit tissue banks don’t want to be interfered with by meddlesome patients. While Planned Parenthood seeks the consent of their donors, for-profit agencies frequently do not and often engage in other scandalous practices, as well. More can be found about that here, here, here, here, and here.

Who are those purchasing human tissues? Johnson and Johnson, L’Oreal and so many more. Going after Planned Parenthood may serve to cut off one of the few ethical providers of human tissues.

Finally, Planned Parenthood has become the battered scapegoat, bullied and threatened by a Senate that historically and profoundly excludes women. Of the U.S. Senate, only 20 percent are women — one of the lowest ratios in the developed world. This is a hard, but true reality that dominates the status quo in U.S. politics. Importantly, these profound disparities matter more and more in policy debates.

Consider that presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush stated recently, “I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health programs.”

Some fellow republicans have attacked him for this, but that too is simply political sport, because the very legislators attacking the former GOP governor voted recently to defund Planned Parenthood. Some of them — 18 to be exact — have even vowed to shut down the entire federal government unless Congress agrees to strip funding from the women’s health organization. In this case, the emperors have no clothes: Anti-abortion members of Congress supported fetal tissue research and then forgot about it — and they’re hoping you’ll forget about it, too.

Lost in the politicking over this issue is the bravery and courage of women who agreed to be donors in the midst of their very personal, often tragic circumstances. Without them, the vaccines and medicines on which all Americans rely might not exist.

But here’s where, politically, “pro-life” Republicans have completely missed the mark in attacking Planned Parenthood: That organization’s role in human tissue harvest and transfer is scant — absolutely minuscule and insignificant in a male-dominated industry that grabs tissue when and where it can, and cares more about profit margins than research breakthroughs. What is our male-dominated Congress willing to do about that?



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"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -- Carl Sagan


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