For certain branches of medical research the use of foetal tissues is claimed to be indispensable, and the lost or discarded foetus serves as an obvious source of such material. Human foetuses are also sold for use in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. However, the use of foetal tissues, or even of whole but non-viable foetuses, may be conducted unethically. Research with foetal tissue denies the special respect due to the human foetus. Especially problematic is non-therapeutic research on the foetus in utero in anticipation of abortion. The aborted foetus can be regarded as a dead person, and may be treated with all the respect that is normally accorded to the dead, or it can be regarded as a sort of tumour or parasite of the womb of the woman who conceived it. In aborted foetal experimentation, the medical profession follows the legal loophole that the woman who conceived it has no rights concerning its disposition, and that the state does not regard it as a human being or even an animal. However, there is also the medical eventuality that some aborted foetuses may be made viable ex-utero, and in the meantime the foetus' right to life should be protected.
Some distinctions are important. Are the foetuses alive or dead ? Is the research being done in utero or ex utero; on foetuses to be aborted or to be brought to term; or on pre-viable or viable foetuses ? Is the foetus spontaneously aborted or is the abortion induced ? Is fertilization in utero or ex utero ? Is the research to benefit the subject as well as others, therapeutic research; or to only benefit others, non-therapeutic research ? Is the risk to the subject minimal, moderate or serious ?
Many sectors of the public and some physicians find the idea of research on whole living foetuses, or even on living foetal tissue, as indefensible on moral, religious or emotional grounds. The only relevant guideline that could be proposed in this case is that when foetal research is undertaken it should be only on subjects that would, by common consent, have no hope whatsoever of continued extra-uterine existence.
The use of human foetal tissue, or of the whole foetus, is indispensable for some medical research, including the culture of certain pathogenic viruses, immunological and chromosomal studies, the study of foetal development, and the preparation of certain vaccines. For example, in 1965, John Enders and Thomas Weller were awarded the Nobel Prize for growing poliomyelitis virus in cells cultured from human foetal tissues. Foetal tissue is more versatile than older people's tissue. Implants of it might one day remedy a wide range of disorders, from Alzheimer's disease, through stroke and epilepsy, to injuries of the spinal cord and even blindness caused by destruction of the optic nerve. A discovery in any of these problem areas would be a real breakthrough. When the aborted foetus, perhaps temporarily still living, suffers no harm or no pain from being the subject of an experiment, there is no logical reason to object to its use, which may be the means of arriving at a better understanding of the processes of life and disease.