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Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue donation

Planned Parenthood recently made national news because an anti-abortion group released an undercover video showing two people posing as fetal tissue recruiters interviewing Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the senior director of medical services of Planned Parenthood. The interview was cropped down into an eight minute clip in which Dr. Nucatola seems to be suggesting that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has responded to the video saying that it is heavily edited and that they do not sell fetal tissue. They do, however, donate fetal tissue with women’s explicit consent and they sometimes receive a small amount of money – in the video Dr. Nucatola says it is typically between $30-100 – that covers transportation of the fetal tissue.

This story made national news because the idea of selling fetal tissue for profit without women’s consent is horrifying. Yet, once we uncover the facts here, this story is much less troubling than it originally seems. One concern the undercover video raises is of selling fetal tissue. It is illegal in the US to sell human and fetal organs and tissue. However, it is not only legal, but also laudable to altruistically donate organs and tissue. Because there is such a strong need for organs and tissue for patients waiting for transportation and for scientific research, there are various campaigns to get people to sign up to be cadaveric organ donors, to donate blood, and to be live kidney donors.  In the US, organ donation is opt-in only, meaning it is completely voluntary and people are under no ethical obligation to donate. Likewise, women who have abortions are under no ethical obligation to donate fetal tissue and typically the fetal tissue is discarded. Women who choose to donate fetal tissue for scientific research are acting altruistically because there are choosing to further scientific research, which could help others in the future.

Another concern the undercover video raises is of donating fetal tissue without women’s consent, which would be a serious violation of women’s autonomy. The right to bodily integrity is a fundamental right, which is why it is paramount to get informed consent for organ and tissue donation of any type. So long as women provide voluntary and informed consent for fetal tissue donation, then this seems acceptable. Some may be concerned that women are taking on extra risk in order to donate fetal tissue, as it may be necessary to perform a different termination procedure in order to acquire fetal tissue that is usable for scientific research. We frequently allow people to take on risk, including medical risk, in order to help others. For example, people can donate blood, tissue (e.g. liver), and organs (e.g. kidneys) to benefit others even though there is no direct benefit to them, only the possibility of negative side effects. Similar to live blood, tissue, and organ donation, we should allow women to donate fetal tissue as long as they provide informed consent. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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