Ben Carson's fetal tissue researchCarson's 1992 study of pathology samples is hardly something that needs defending.
by T.J. Nelson
en Carson is under fire for having worked with aborted fetal tissue back in 1992. A liberal blogger is complaining about his article Colloid Cysts of the Third Ventricle: Immunohistochemical evidence for nonneuropithelial differentiation (Hum Pathol. 1992 Jul;23(7):811-6 by T. Tsuchida, R.H. Hruban, B.S. Carson, and P.C. Phillips).
Two points: first, despite what you may hear, in the real world only the first author really has responsibility for everything that's in a paper. Ben Carson was third author. It's not clear what his role was—or even what his beliefs were all those years ago.
Second, when he says “ ... just because they get the fetal tissue, does it mean they should throw it out? Of course they don't. That's how science is advanced,” it's not a strong enough response. A spontaneous abortion or ectopic pregnancy is one thing. In my opinion tissue from a voluntary abortion is tainted and should no more be touched in a formal research project than tissue from any other subject obtained without their consent—the subject being, in this case, the unborn person, who is unable to consent.
But in a pathology ward things are different: a dead person is a dead person. You autopsy them. You compare samples from accident victims, GSWA* victims, and babies—whatever comes in. You don't ask who killed them. You know it was something or someone bad—maybe a car crash, maybe a murderer. You try to discover what the cause of death was. And maybe along the way you discover a scientific truth, and pull a little bit of good out of the horror and the mangled body. That's hardly something that needs defending.
Nowadays we refrain from using any kind of human tissue without consent of the victim or the next of kin except in the course of a post-mortem examination. I advise my colleagues to go further and stop purchasing and using fetal tissue for their research because this is an ethically gray area. That's because the person's body is being donated to science by the person who caused their death. This is ethically very troubling.
Consider: if you shoot somebody, you aren't allowed to sign the consent form donating their body to science (or, at least, you shouldn't be). It's a conflict of interest because the donation can be seen as exculpatory—or worse, part of the motive.
Parental consent on the child's behalf is accepted for many things, but never for anything harmful. It's ironic that the parent can be arrested for letting a child walk home from school but not for aborting it. Such legal inconsistencies can't stand for long. Doctors and scientists can hope society makes a more ethical choice soon, but we can help by setting the example.
*GSWA = gunshot wound to the abdomen