Bioethics Blogs

Explainer: what are the issues around the use of human foetal tissue?


Based on the furore currently engulfing the US, you might imagine that the use of foetal tissue is illegal. But in fact the collection and use of cells obtained from a human foetus following miscarriage or abortion has a long history in medical science.

However, the US has a very long and established tradition of collecting and using human foetal tissue for scientific purposes. The Carnegie Collection, founded in 1914, contains thousands of human foetuses and gives its name to the Carnegie stages that chart foetal development.

It is legal in the US to use foetal tissue for research, something overseen by the National Institute of Health. There have been intermittent but sometimes violent protests against the practice due to its association with abortion, itself a controversial issue in the US. Now secret footage of a doctor from Planned Parenthood (a nationwide family planning clinic) apparently discussing the sale of foetal tissue has raised the issue, and tempers, once more.

When only human genetic material will do

Foetal tissue is important for many promising fields of medical research. It’s now well-known that genetics holds the key to understanding normal and abnormal human biology, from congenital diseases, to cancer and almost all major human diseases and impairments. Developmental genetics research, which studies how genes control the earliest stages of human growth, is an important area.

Some developmental genetics research can be conducted using non-human animals such as mice, but the most accurate and usable data comes from using human tissue. In order to progress, such genetic research needs human foetal tissue obtained from miscarriages or abortions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.