In this entry I told in detail the sorry tale of how fetal tissue research, and federal funding for it, dropped off the American political landscape with the election of George W. Bush and his decision to fund fetal tissue research.
For that reason, and oddly, I'm a bit heartened to see Wesley J. Smith stating the position I disagree with on this subject--namely, that aborted fetal tissue research is ethical. His bothering to state that position is itself at least an acknowledgment that the question is worth discussing.
Smith argues that even if one considers abortion to be murder, it doesn't follow that aborted fetal tissue research is any different from the use of the organs of murder victims for transplant.
Well. That opens the whole question of whether vital organ transplant is ethical. I have real questions about that, ranging from worrisome analogies to cannibalism to serious questions about whether "whole brain death" ever actually occurs and whether it can be reliably detected in the absence of cardio-pulmonary death. But waive those. Really. Waive them.
For the sake of this entry, let's assume that it could be ethical under at least some circumstances to take organs for transplant from a murder victim.
So what's the difference? First (as I said in comments on Smith's entry), the aborted child is being murdered legally. Hence, the use of the fetal tissue is connected with an already socially somewhat approved and legal procedure. The use of the cells in beneficial medicine serves further to legitimize that killing procedure in the public mind. The analogy would be to taking organs from legal euthanasia victims or to taking organs in some futuristic scenario from disabled five-year-olds who have been legally killed in “clinics.”
Second, the organ donor has been at least for some period of time treated as a patient, even if he was a murder victim. He was brought to the ER, where at first he was a patient before he was declared to be "wholly brain dead" for transplant. And, at least in theory, there was no collusion between those who killed him and those who planned to use his organs. The aborted child has not ever been treated as a patient. His body is delivered to the scientists or to middlemen by his murderers. Josephine Quintavalle points out here that abortionists deliberately kill children in ways likely to preserve their brain tissue when they know that the tissue will be used for research.
The medical professionals doing this particular research knew in advance that their tiny fellow humans would be killed, will have asked permission from the mothers involved, and will have made every effort to ensure that the brain tissue was harvested according to their exact scientific requirements.
Compare a situation, then, in which a murderer, wanting to help humanity, drops off the cadaver of his victim at a lab, where it is used for dissection or murders his victims according to scientific specifications so that their organs can be used. Or compare a situation in which a political prisoner's organs are donated when he is executed. Note: Let's just pretend that the government really was going to execute the political prisoner anyway but is simply careful to do it in such a way that organs can be donated. In these scenarios, the humanity of the victim has never been recognized at any point in the process, and the use of the victim’s body for donation is part of the dehumanization in the entire process from planning murder to actual murder to body use.
Third, there has always been some consequential concern that some women will be more likely to have abortions if they believe that the abortion might "do some good." According to this article,
A 1995 survey by the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto found that, among women who would consider having an abortion, 17 percent would be more likely to undergo an abortion if fetal tissue could be donated for medical use.
Fourth, there is the issue of compensation. I do not imagine that the abortionists Quintavalle mentions are carefully removing fetal heads with brain tissue intact just because they want to be benefactors to humanity. Some years ago there was quite a flap (see here and here, for example) about how the payment of "costs" for fetal bodies actually amounts to compensation and trafficking. This raises very real questions about complicity of researchers in the act of the abortionist by means of, in essence, purchasing the murder victim from the murderer, something that does not happen in the case of older murder victims.
All of this has been said before, said better, and said at more length, back in the 1990's when mainstream pro-lifers were still talking frequently about the matter. I applaud Wesley J. Smith's moral seriousness in bringing up the question, though I disagree with him. He, at least, does not think it does any harm from time to time to re-open serious ethical questions that were supposedly decided and conceded, even by pro-lifers, long ago.