Is it ethical to experiment on aborted humans?
Nov 05 Investigate, also reprinted as part of the book Eve’s Bite by Ian Wishart
It’s the hidden side of medical research. A massive industry harvesting pieces of dead children for experiments, or transplanting into animals. IAN WISHART discovers the University of Auckland has imported body parts from American babies for a research project, and asks some hard questions:
There are puddles of water in the gloomy corridors of Auck-land University’s School of Medicine, leftovers from a spring rainstorm and some bad building maintenance on this grey September afternoon. This nondescript urban edifice, now in the shadow of the new Auckland Hospital extensions, houses dark secrets. Or so Investigate has been told.
“They’re doing an undergraduate presentation next week in the Department of Optometry and Vision Science,” a source in Auckland’s optometry community confides in a cryptic email. “Thought you might be interested to investigate a research project involving tissue from aborted fetuses.”
Optometry. Eye doctors. Hardly the first branch of medicine that springs to mind as the cutting edge of macabre experimentation. But inside the Cole Lecture Theatre, safely sheltered from the weather and the waterlogged corridor, fifty or so medical students have filled the room almost to capacity as teams of fourth-year undergrads present the results of this year’s main research projects.
An American woman holds court, a scientific Mistress of Ceremonies taking clear pleasure in parading her protégés to their medical colleagues as they make audio-visual presentation after presentation. She is Dr Keely Bumsted O’Brien, and this is her baby, so to speak.
Across the road, in the big hospital’s emergency rooms and oncology units, specialists, intensivists, nurses and registrars are working frantically to save the living. Here, in the School of Medicine, it turns out O’Brien’s team has been dissecting the dead. And not just any dead.
“The title of the project,” tipped our source, “is ‘Photoreceptor-associated gene expression in human fetal and embryonic chicken retina’. As far as I am aware this project is unlikely to have received regional ethics approval from the Ministry of Health. The tissue has been obtained from elective abortions in the United States and was transported here for the experiments. This may be the first research of its kind in New Zealand and I am sure the public are quite unaware of it.”
Just how did body parts from a group of aborted American infants end up in New Zealand for students to conduct experiments on? To find the answers, we began investigations in the United States, and a controversy that blew up there six years ago.
It was an interview that shocked America. An Insider, spilling the beans on massive malpractice to a reporter on ABC’s 20/20. Only this time, it wasn’t Big Tobacco in the gunsights, it was the US abortion industry, exposed as harvesting the organs from aborted babies. According to former abortion clinic technician Dean Alberty, clinics were harvesting eyes, brains, hearts, limbs, torsos and other body parts for sale to the scientific market: laboratories wanting to test new drugs or procedures, or researchers trying to find the causes of genetic disorders or discover new ways of treating disorders like Parkinsons.
To make matters doubly embarrassing for authorities, the trafficking was taking place inside abortion clinics run by Planned Parenthood, the US affiliate of New Zealand’s Family Planning organization.
Alberty worked for a Maryland agency called the Anatomic Gift Foundation, which essentially acted as a brokerage between universities and researchers seeking body parts, and the abortion clinics providing the raw material. Alerted by the clinics about the races and gestations of babies due to be aborted each day, AGF technicians would match the offerings with parts orders on their client lists. Alberty and his colleagues would turn up at the abortions that offered the best donor prospects to begin dissecting and extracting what they needed before decay set in.
“We would have a contract with an abortion clinic that would allow us to go in…[to] procure fetal tissue for research. We would get a generated list each day to tell us what tissue researchers, pharmaceuticals and universities were looking for. Then we would go and look at the particular patient charts—we had to screen out anyone who had STDs or fetal anomalies. These had to be the most perfect specimens we could give these researchers for the best value that we could sell for.
“We were taking eyes, livers, brains, thymuses, and especially cardiac blood…even blood from the limbs that we would get from the veins” he said.
Alberty told of seeing babies wounded but alive after abortion procedures, and in one case a set of twins “still moving on the table” when clinicians from AGF began dissecting the children to harvest their organs. The children, he said, were “cuddling each other” and “gasping for breath” when medics moved in for the kill.
Alberty had been asked by a pro-life group, Life Dynamics, to provide information about activities in the clinics, and the issue caused enough national scandal to see an episode of ABC’s 20/20 devoted to it in March 2000.
On that programme, as in this magazine, the imagery was highly sanitized so as not to upset sensitive viewers. The closest 20/20 got to screening images of trafficked human fetal tissue was a pea-sized fragment of unidentifiable tissue in a glass Petri dish.
Life Dynamics founder Mark Crutcher later told media:
“We are sympathetic to the explanation offered by the ABC producer who told us after the show that the network could not broadcast footage of dismembered babies, baggies full of tiny human eyes or any other accurate footage of the ‘commodity’ being sold by the baby parts merchants. But this should have been stated in the programme. Showing scientists poking at slivers of flesh in a Petri dish through a microscope was deceptive and it dehumanizes this debate.”
In America, late-term abortions are permitted, even up to 30 weeks gestation. It’s a three day procedure and involves forcing the mother to go into labour but killing the baby with a spike to the base of the skull before it leaves the birth canal. Even so, according to Alberty, it wasn’t unusual out of the 30 or 40 late-term abortions each week to see several babies born alive on the operating table before clinicians could perform the procedure.
“They were coming out alive. The doctor would either break the neck or take a pair of tongs and basically beat the foetus until it was dead.”
Alberty’s testimony was verbal, and in many cases it was challenged by abortion providers who questioned his motives and accused him of “embellishing” the sordid details of the abortion industry. But Alberty the whistleblower wasn’t alone. Another former clinic manager, Eric Harrah, gave a video interview disclosing live births as the abortion industry’s “dirty secret”:
“It was always very disturbing, so the doctor would try to conceal it from the rest of the staff.”
One incident in particular haunts him. The clinic had begun inducing a woman 26 weeks pregnant, but sent her overnight to a nearby motel to await the full procedure in the morning. Instead, in the middle of the night she gave birth to a child and was brought back to the abortion clinic with the baby wrapped in a towel.
“I was in the scrub room when I saw the towel move,” says Harrah. “A nurse said, ‘Eric, you’re just tired. It’s three in the morning.’ Then we both looked and a little baby’s arm raised up out of the towel and was moving like a newborn baby. I screamed and ran out. The doctor came in and closed the door and when we went back in to process the baby out of the clinic into the lab, [the baby] had a puncture wound in his chest.”
In the United States, trafficking in baby parts for profit is a criminal offence. But to get around the problem, universities and researchers pay a fee – not for the parts themselves but for the “cost of extraction”. Thus, there are different fees depending on the amount of work involved. And shipping and handling is extra.
Harvesting fetal tissue is not yet illegal in the US. In fact, the programme at five major universities including the University of Washington is part funded by the US National Institutes of Health. It is the University of Washington that has been supplying Keely Bumsted O’Brien at the University of Auckland, with some of her eyeball retinas of aborted children.
The reality of the ethical boundaries wasn’t lost on the stu-dents gathered in the Auckland School of Medicine lecture theatre when fourth year undergrads Tim Eagle and Kimberly Taylor wrapped up their presentation on genetic testing the eyeballs of chicken embryos and human fetuses. They told the audience they’d used tissue from a 10 week human embryo, a 12 week and a 16 week foetus. When Keely Bumsted O’Brien called for questions from the audience, the first was an ethical one, from a female student somewhere up the front of the crowded auditorium. Had Eagle and Taylor, she wondered, run their project past the Auckland University Ethics Committee?
“We have ethical approval under Keely as referee, which is obvious by itself. Her current ethical approval worked for what we were doing so we basically used hers, which was obtained as far as we’re aware from America,” Taylor responded.
When Investigate rang O’Brien to clarify, she confirmed her teams were working on something big. WOULD YOU LIKE TO READ MORE OF THIS STORY?
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