A recent GEN poll entitled “Does your academic or industry lab use fetal tissue?” revealed, at least to the GEN team, some surprising results, particularly since GEN polling responses are always provided anonymously. While 19% of respondents from academic labs and 10.1% from industrial labs said they did use fetal tissue for research, 29.1% and 25.3% from academia and industry, respectively, said they did not. A combined 16.5% from academia and industry indicated that they were unsure if their labs even had a policy on the use of fetal tissue for research.

The GEN poll was put up in response to the recent controversy over videos purportedly showing doctors from Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of fetal tissues. The poll results were somewhat curious because research on fetal tissue is legal in the United States and has been taking place for about 80 years. In addition, given the need for better medical treatments for such diseases as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, there continues to be a high demand for fetal tissue, which also has been critical for the development of novel vaccines. Yet, most of our poll respondents either answered in the negative regarding their use of fetal tissue or said they were unsure of their labs’ policies on the subject.

Now, it might be that researchers simply are reluctant to address the topic at all due in large part to the uproar over the Planned Parenthood videos. Indeed, in an article in BuzzFeed on August 9, out of 70 scientists contacted by the BuzzFeed team, only 6 said they would talk about fetal tissue research in their labs and only if they would [stay] anonymous. “[The] vast majority of scientists who use aborted tissues have shirked from the hot public spotlight,” noted the article. Since the fetal tissue issue is so divisive, many researchers expressed concerns over their own safety and that of their families, and about any fallout that might have repercussions for their company or academic institution.

The fact remains, however, that no matter what one’s feelings are on fetal tissue research, it’s not against the law, it has received federal support, and federal advisory committees have called fetal tissue research ethical. Many of the objections to fetal tissue research come from Republicans who, for the most part, are anti-choice. Nevertheless, fetal tissue research has not only been funded by the Clinton and Obama administrations, but by the George W. Bush team as well.

Jake Tapper, writing online in Salon on January 14, 2000, noted that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted in 1992 to overturn a temporary Reagan Administration ban on fetal tissue research that had been issued in 1988. Tapper quoted Sen. McCain as saying, “My abhorrence for the practice of abortion is unquestionable. Yet, my abhorrence for these diseases and the suffering they cause is just as strong.” It’s doubtful that most on the opposing sides will ever come to a mutually satisfactory agreement on the use of fetal tissue due to the topic’s contentious nature.

Nathalia Holt, an author and microbiologist who has worked with fetal tissue, dealt with the issue straight on July 30 in the New York Times. “Researchers have no say in whether a fetus is aborted or develops into a human baby; those decision are made by women and shaped by politicians,” she wrote. “Yet their science, performed on discarded tissue, has the ability to save lives. It already has.”