The human tissue conversation we really need

Planned Parenthood accused of selling organs
Planned Parenthood accused of selling organs

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  • Robert Klitzman: Research on fetal tissues has potential to help millions
  • But new technologies need to be approached cautiously, he says

Robert Klitzman is a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University. He is author of the forthcoming book, "The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Countless patients in the United States and across the globe suffer from diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, heart attacks and other disorders that result from cells in our bodies no longer working. If doctors could replace these nonfunctioning and dying cells with healthy ones, the recipients could live healthy and productive lives.

Clearly, then, research on fetal tissue has the potential to help millions of people every year. Yet the important discussions that need to be had on how and when to tap into this potential are being overshadowed by a new controversy of the hidden video variety.
Cells from aborted fetuses can play vital roles in advancing stem cell research, and even potentially offer possible treatments in and of themselves. Yet it is also important to remember that human cells are part of our bodies, and therefore should not be bought and sold for money; we must not treat them as commodities like sneakers or toothpaste.
    Robert Klitzman
    With that in mind, an anti-abortion group's newly released undercover video of a Planned Parenthood representative apparently discussing the procurement of fetal tissue raises many disturbing issues.
    I do not know the full content or context of what Deborah Nucatola said. However, in the snippets of video that the Center for Medical Progress has posted from a meeting with undercover anti-abortion activists last year, Nucatola seems to discuss these delicate issues in a casual, offhand manner that comes across as insensitive. (It is worth noting that there was also a longer version of the video posted, and even in the shorter one, Nucatola does not appear to state explicitly that she or others are in fact buying and selling organs. Instead, she mentions that relatively small amounts of money -- $30 to $100 -- may change hands, presumably to cover costs of shipping and storage, rather than the buying and selling of tissues per se).
    Unfortunately, the anti-abortion group appears to be seeking an emotional response to the video, playing frightening, ominous music in the background, and recording the discussion over lunch, as Nucatola casually sticks food in her mouth with a fork over wine.
    Obviously, buying and selling of such tissue is illegal. But instead of trying to catch people unawares, what we need is clear, level-headed thinking about these issues, and adherence to clear ethical guidelines.
    Planned Parenthood has provided vital reproductive care to large numbers of women for about 100 years. With this in mind, its goal should be, as it states on its website, to help those women who seek out these services; it should not to try to profit off of organs (if that is what it is found in any subsequent investigations to do).
    There are broad implications to the discussion now being had. And the timing of this controversy is ironic as several advocates, some on the right, have recently been arguing that we should alter government laws blocking the sale of human tissue and allow individuals to buy and sell human organs such as kidneys. Indeed, advocates of this approach have written in the "Wall Street Journal" and elsewhere that we should allow a market for organs.
    Yet the furor that the Planned Parenthood video is causing should remind us of the potential dangers of permitting such a market.
    Yes, new technologies can help millions of people. But these new techniques and technologies need to be approached sensitively and cautiously, cognizant of the complex moral issues involved. Inevitably, some technologies may evoke a "yuck" response when we hear about them. But this reflex should not prevent us working carefully and sensitively to establish the facts in as clear and level-headed a way as we can.
    Such a level-headed approach will leave us in a better place to proceed accordingly -- whether we are for or against abortion.