Human Fetus as Research Material

Fertilization of the egg and sperm initiates the development of a new organism through a series of stages. A fetus is an implanted human embryo from eight weeks after conception until birth. Fetal tissue is obtained from legal abortions and is used for scientific research involving human development, fetal tissue implant or fetal cell therapy and development of vaccines. Potential treatment of life-threatening diseases is also studied using fetal cells. Is it ethical to use human fetuses as research material for the advancement of basic science as well as for the development of lifesaving vaccines and therapies?

Human Embryo approximately 6 weeks from conception. Specimen submerged in alcohol after spontaneous abortion. Source:
Human Embryo approximately 6 weeks from conception. Specimen submerged in alcohol after spontaneous abortion. Source:

Scientists have experimented with fetal tissues to advance their knowledge of human biology from as early as the 1930s 1. The 1954 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for the development of polio vaccine using human fetal kidney cells. The year 1973 marked the rise of a large societal debate over elective human abortion after which the use of fetuses for research became controversial 2. The ethical and legal issues of fetal research are closely related to the ethical and legal issues of abortion. Is the fetus a human subject? If yes, then the fetus is entitled to all the protections and safeguards guaranteed to every citizen by constitutional law. Alternately, if the fetus is not a person whom the law is under obligation to protect, then one is free to carry out any experimentation that benefits the society. The ethical aspects of fetal research revolves around the protection of “one of the most helpless creatures in our society” on one hand, while on the other hand, includes research that can potentially benefit many future fetuses who will have a better chance to lead a healthy life.

Fetal cells have the ability to rapidly divide, grow, and adapt to new environments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “some vaccines such as rubella and varicella [were] made from human cell-line cultures, and some of these cell lines originated from aborted fetal tissue, obtained from legal abortions in the 1960s. No new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make these vaccines, now or in the future.” 3 New insights into birth defects, spontaneous abortions, and other developmental diseases have emerged from fetal tissue research over the past years. The transplantation of fetal cells into the brains of Parkinson’s patients has allowed some patients to regain speech, speed of movement, and quality of life 4.

For any kind of scientific research, it is important to determine the nature, extent, and purpose of research involving living fetuses and to consider alternative means for reaching those purposes. The following line of questions needs to be considered prior to the research: When is high-risk research justified? How does the status of a fetus to be aborted differ from that of a fetus going to full term? Does a fetus feel pain? Can a fetus to be aborted be harmed? What responsibility must be taken and by whom for a fetus born alive but damaged by research? Which takes precedence when the rights of the mother conflict with the rights of the fetus?

Fetal tissue transplantation is still not a reliable technology. In 2001, a clinical trial to treat Parkinson’s was abruptly stopped after some patients developed serious neurological side effects 6.  One of the main concerns regarding the issue is that science would become too dependent on the products of abortion and that society would be less inclined to try to find alternatives to abortion. Another issue is that of the danger the fetus is subjected to during the procedure. Also, what if the mother changed her mind and decided to allow the fetus to come to full term? There is a possibility that she would then give birth to a child that is injured. It would be morally unjustifiable to bring a child into the world with defects or disabilities that had been intentionally induced.

Fetal research is justifiable only where its aim is therapeutic and so should be limited. It is important to emphasize on the need for careful evaluation of a proposed experiment for both its medical and ethical soundness.


  1. Gregory Gelfand and Toby R. Levin, “Fetal Tissue Research: Legal Regulation Of Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation”, Washington & Lee Law Review: 668 (1993)
  2. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1973 imposed a temporary moratorium on federally funded research on live fetuses following Roe v. Wade, 410 US 113, Supreme Court (1973)
  3. Pontifical Academy of Life, “Moral Reflections On Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses” Vatican City (2005)
  4. Clarkson ED. Fetal tissue transplantation for patients with Parkinson’s disease: a database of published clinical results. Drugs Aging (2001)
  5. Gina Kolata, “Parkinson’s Research Is Set Back By Failure of Fetal Cell Implants” The New York Times, March 08 (2001)