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The Foley Institute SEPP Series



Using fetal tissue: The ethics of scientific research


Petri dishThe Science, Ethics, and Public Policy series works to link various research departments at Washington State University with external experts to provide discussion and insights into controversial issues at the crossroads of science and public policy.

February 11th, “Using Fetal Tissue: The Ethics of Scientific Research,” was moderated by resident professor of philosophy Bill Kabasenche. The symposium began with a presentation by Washington State University professor Terry Hassold of the School of Molecular Biosciences. Dr. Hassold explained spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, as an “extraordinarily common complication of human pregnancies.” These events are usually due to chromosomal abnormalities in an embryo that will never lead to life. Dr. Hassold regards research of the tissue from these miscarriages as essential for assisted reproduction, stating, “Simple genetic testing can provide the reason for the tragic loss of a pregnancy.” Fundamentally, a drawback in studying the conventional lab rats is that findings will not accurately reflect human outcomes as our species “has the highest rate of chromosomal error,” a fact that will only be reflected by examining human tissue. Dr. Hassold concluded, that the “importance of studying ourselves can’t be overstated.”

Juxtaposing the scientist were Philosophy professors Christopher Tollefsen of the University of Southern California and Leslie Francis of the University of Utah. Dr. Tollefsen began his presentation as the self-proclaimed representation of the minority view in most colleges. His philosophical focus on the morality of abortion and subsequent research led him to ask three main questions: What is the moral issue at stake in fetal tissue research? What issues of complicity arise for researchers and eventual beneficiaries? What steps can be taken to eliminate or limit these issues?

Feminist Katha Pollitt famously asked “If you think use of fetal tissue research is wrong and should be banned, would you refuse to use any therapies that may come of it?” Dr. Tollefsen refuted by stating “It’s neither obligatory nor possible to say no to all of them,” such as vaccines one received as a child. Instead, he argues that certain questions should be asked: “What should we reform now? What role do my actions play in perpetuating an ongoing injustice?” Ultimately, Dr. Tollefsen should believe that this research should be conducted with the range of support in mind. “Fetal tissue research as a part of contemporary science is anything but private. Public sciences is, in great measure, publically funded. I think that all citizens, including those morally opposed to abortion have a real stake in ensuring that public science benefits the general public and does so in accordance with norms that can be accepted by as many citizens as possible.

Focusing on the issue of complicity, Dr. Leslie Francis suggested limiting research to that where the decisions of abortion and donation of tissue are separated. For instance, with a spontaneous miscarriage, “there’s been no prior wrongful action. Situations in which the abortion decision is made entirely separate from the decision about use in research.” Dr. Francis went on to say, “Even if you’re opposed to abortion, once that’s happened independently, there’s no additional harm to the fetus from research.” Importantly, she underscored the importance of treating the remains of all human life with respect and in accordance with the law.


Bill Kabasenche, Professor of Philosophy at Washington State University.

Leslie Francis, Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Utah.

Terry Hassold, Professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University.

Christopher Tollefsen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

See flier here.


Contributor: Shantara Pintak