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Question 85: May a researcher use tissue from deliberately aborted fetuses?

I am a medical scientist teaching and doing research in the graduate school of a major non-Catholic university. I have been invited to participate in a research project which, if successful, could lead to significant advances in our knowledge of the causes of certain prenatal, developmental abnormalities, and, eventually, our ability to prevent and/or treat them. Studying the draft of a proposal for the project, I see only one problem. The tissue required as material will have to be fresh (not preserved or frozen). Obtaining fresh tissue from spontaneously aborted fetuses will not be feasible, as I have concluded reluctantly after looking into that possibility. The university hospital’s department of obstetrics and gynecology will supply the tissue, and it will come from deliberately aborted fetuses.

I believe abortion is wrong and have worked actively in our state’s citizens-for-life organization and often spoken out here at the university. But I would like to participate in this research project. Nobody in the obstetrics and gynecology department will be involved in it, and no abortions will be done that would not have been done anyway. All the tissue used would otherwise be disposed of along with other hospital waste. If I refuse the invitation, it will go to a colleague, and the project probably will proceed. In that case, however, the chances of success will be somewhat less, since I am better qualified by previous research experience—which, of course, is why I am being invited first to participate and would like to participate.

Also, if I refuse the invitation and my colleague accepts, as I am quite sure he will, I expect that he will seek my advice regularly on an informal basis. If I am not going to give it, I think I should tell him that before he commits himself. I would appreciate having your opinion on this problem too.


This questioner’s problem about involvement in induced abortion is similar to a problem about cooperation. Even if participants in the project can entirely avoid cooperating in the abortions from which the tissue will come, they necessarily will be associated with those abortions. This complicity will be wrong for several reasons, and agreeing now to give the colleague advice would be wrong for similar reasons. Still, if the questioner expressly refuses to participate in the project as a matter of principle and it nevertheless goes forward, he or she may, in my judgment, consider giving the colleague some advice. But doing that could be justified only if the questioner observed certain limits so that complicity with abortion would be avoided.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Many people involved in abortion deny that unborn babies are persons. But since you believe that abortion is wrong, I assume you hold that the new human individual is—or, at least, should be presumed to be—a person from fertilization (see LCL, 488–98). Holding that, you should be disposed to see the force of arguments against accepting the invitation to participate in this otherwise appealing research project.

Even if no member of the department of obstetrics and gynecology will be involved in the project, you or others participating in it necessarily will become involved in that department insofar as it is doing the abortions. For surely you will not receive the tissue in the precise condition it would be in when dumped into the incinerator. Rather, at a minimum, you will have to arrange that it be kept apart, handled with special care, and delivered to you in timely fashion. Very likely, further arrangements will be needed affecting the methods and timing of abortions. So, researchers, perhaps including you, will have to become involved in the activities of those doing abortions insofar as those activities will serve your research project. Such involvement, I believe, would constitute the “complicity in deliberate abortion” condemned by the Church’s teaching.272 This complicity in deliberate abortion would be morally wrong for at least four reasons.

In the first place, it could lead you to share the evil will of abortionists. For instance, intending to carry the project to successful completion—something impossible unless abortions are done regularly in timely fashion—you might at some point ask that an abortion be scheduled as soon as possible and thus intend that it be done, not merely accept it as given that abortions are done more or less regularly.

Second, even if you avoided sharing abortionists’ evil will, your complicity would be scandalous in the strict sense. By enabling abortionists to feel that they are contributing to science, it would provide them with an excuse of a kind especially important in a university hospital where there might otherwise be some repugnance to doing many abortions. The research project also probably would be used to reassure women seeking abortion that terminating their pregnancies is not so bad, inasmuch as it would benefit other babies.

Third, this complicity in abortion would make it seem that those participating in the research were not opposed to abortion. In the case of someone like you, who has publicly opposed abortion and joined in efforts against it, your involvement would suggest that your opposition was not deep and sincere but merely superficial. Participation in the research project would thus undercut your prolife witness.

Fourth, from the point of view of the aborted unborn individuals, your involvement also would be unfair. If you were about to be killed unjustly, you surely would regard the plan to make use of your remains as a seal of doom, forestalling possible reconsideration and more energetic opposition by those interested in your welfare. So, you would want everyone to make it clear that he or she would reject any benefit from anyone’s killing you. You would be especially upset if even those who had recognized and decried the injustice being done to you betrayed you by their complicity with those perpetrating it, as if little were at stake. Then too, the use of human remains ordinarily requires consent, either in advance by the individual or after death by next of kin acting on behalf of the deceased. Aborted babies obviously cannot have consented, and their mothers, by choosing abortion, forfeit the authority to act in their interests.

Therefore, you should reject this invitation. But your second question remains: If your colleague agrees to participate, as you expect, should you advise him?

I think it would be wrong for you to tell your colleague you will help and advise him. Doing that would have many of the negative features of participating yourself, not least that of making the project’s funding and execution more likely. By contrast, telling your colleague you will give him no advice would both reduce the likelihood that the project will go forward and maximize the clarity of your witness. Moreover, since researchers tend to follow up on successful projects, giving no advice, by reducing the likelihood that this project will succeed, might reduce the incentive for other projects using tissue from aborted fetuses.

However, refusing entirely to give advice also might have a significant disadvantage. If the project goes forward despite your refusal to participate, it might be better for it to be more rather than less fruitful, and, if you do not give any advice, it probably will be less fruitful. Therefore, it seems to me, you could stop short of telling your colleague you will give him no advice, and simply say your refusal to participate in the project is a matter of principle—being convinced that abortion is wrong, you want no part in it. By saying that, you would do nothing to encourage the project.

Nevertheless, if and when it is actually under way, you could consider three things: (1) the likelihood that giving advice would indirectly encourage other researchers to use tissue from deliberately aborted fetuses, (2) the extent to which your colleague becomes involved in the abortions, and (3) the likelihood that the project really will benefit other babies. If you judged acceptable the risk that giving advice would indirectly encourage others to use tissue from aborted babies, found your colleague’s complicity in abortion to be minimal, and believed the likely benefits of advising him would be substantial, you might, without directly participating in the project, provide advice that would contribute to its benefits.

In doing so, however, you would, in my judgment, have to observe at least three limiting conditions. First, you could not become physically involved in any way with the fetal tissue; or, to put the point affirmatively and perhaps overly simply, you could advise only in your office, not in the laboratory. Second, you could give advice only on questions that would be the same if the tissue had been obtained from spontaneously aborted babies. You could not, for example, help your colleague resolve problems arising from the scheduling of abortions. Third, you could not allow your name to be listed as an adviser to the project or accept any stipend, but would have to keep your contribution entirely informal.

With these limits, advising your colleague would have few if any of the bad features of directly participating in the project. You would avoid sharing in your colleague’s complicity in abortion, and your name would not be identified with the project. From the point of view of fairness, even the victims of abortion would have to admit that your advice to your colleague was not so much injurious to them as it was beneficial to other babies, whom you hoped to help protect from developmental anomalies.

272. I think the phrase complicity in abortion (cum abortu volontario societatem) refers to all morally unacceptable involvement with abortion, whether that be cooperation, strictly speaking, or not; see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum vitae, I, 4, AAS 80 (1988) 83, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 3; cf. Joseph Boyle, “Moral Outrage and Medical Benefits,” Ethics and Medics, 16:4 (Apr. 1991): 3–4.