I’ve mentioned how anti-choicers have made it tougher for parents to grieve for stillborn children, but their collateral damage spreads much farther than that.
When a journalist invites scientists to discuss their work in the pages of Nature, it is rare to encounter a resounding silence. But that was the case when our reporter reached out to biologists in the United States this autumn to ask about the value and applications of their research with human fetal tissue. Just two of the 18 scientists we contacted were willing to go on the record with details of their work.
The reticence is understandable. A hostile political climate surrounds this research in the United States, where the release in July of covertly filmed videos ignited a firestorm of controversy.
It is not surprising then that, since July, even the small number of Planned Parenthood clinics supplying fetal tissue has dwindled. Or that when an unhinged gunman launched a murderous rampage last month, he chose a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado as a target.
Nor is it surprising that US scientists who use fetal tissue are choosing to stay silent about the value of their work rather than to defend it publicly and face the real possibility of physical attack. (One scientist told The New York Times that in response to threats against him his institution had posted a guard outside his lab.) The two US-based biologists who did speak to Nature should be applauded for their courage.
Cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue have been fairly commonplace in research and medicine since the creation in the 1960s of the WI-38 cell strain, which was derived at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and MRC-5, which came from a Medical Research Council laboratory in London (see Nature 498, 422–426; 2013). Viruses multiply readily in these cells, and they are used to manufacture many globally important vaccines, including those against measles, rubella, rabies, chicken pox, shingles and hepatitis A.
An estimated 5.8 billion people have received vaccines made with these two cell lines which, with others, have become standard laboratory tools in studies of ageing and drug toxicity. (Research with such lines is not covered by US regulations governing the use of fresh fetal cells and tissue nor captured in the NIH database.) In the past 25 years, fetal cell lines have been used in a roster of medical advances, including the production of a blockbuster arthritis drug and therapeutic proteins that fight cystic fibrosis and haemophilia.
While this is entirely accidental on their part, the anti-choice movement will take down a fair chunk of modern medicine if they get their way. Everyone should oppose them, skeptics included.