Human sacrifice for the benefit of all
A recent undercover operation by an antiabortion group has cast light on some of the gruesome details behind abortion clinics’ cooperation with biotech companies in the supply of aborted foetal remains for research purposes.
The story is as grotesque as you might imagine, with the Planned Parenthood senior director of medical research detailing some of the ways in which her organisation could help meet the biotech companies’ needs:
“We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.”
We aren’t accustomed to hearing human beings described in such a way, like meat cut to order, and part of the shock perhaps lies in the cavalier reminder that by ten weeks human foetuses do have functioning vital organs. Use of the term “crush” to describe the method is likewise highly evocative, and uncharacteristic in the usual context of abortion advocacy – where people are at pains to avoid language that might accurately describe the procedures taking place.
The video is being used by antiabortion activists to support claims that Planned Parenthood is selling foetal organs to biotech companies. Planned Parenthood denies it is selling the organs, and the argument that it is merely receiving reimbursement for time and resources allocated to the donation of foetal tissue may see the allegations falter.
Regardless of the legality of the process, donation of aborted foetal tissue for research purposes is not new. But in an era of increasingly commercialised biotech research, renewed attention to this macabre relationship between research, capital, and abortion is appropriately disturbing.
IVF and the commodification of embryos
My years in bioethics repeatedly demonstrated that our ethical landscape is in a shambles. On the one hand, abortion operated on the premise that the foetus was not a human being – a conclusion that rested more on a simple dualistic metaphysics than on scientific taxonomy. On the other hand, IVF proceeded with the assurance that embryos would always be treated with the respect that is their due; that commodification and objectification of human life would not follow.
Decades later, growing interest in embryonic stem cells fortuitously coincided with a backlog of frozen “surplus” embryos, a vast research resource that was pointlessly sitting “on ice” but that advocates of stem cell research assured us could instead be put to good use.
Curiously, this more pragmatic attitude to the frozen embryos was not seen as a fulfilment of earlier warnings about the commodification and objectification of human life that would be wrought by IVF. Instead, embryonic stem cell proponents argued by turns that this wasn’t really human life, since the embryos were never destined to be implanted and develop to term, and that regardless of their exact status, utilising these embryos for research was clearly the lesser of two evils when the alternative was to leave them frozen for ever, or to allow them to die.
Maybe one day – perhaps when commercial surrogacy is commonplace – people will stop and acknowledge that, yes, IVF did indeed lead to the commodification and objectification of human life. But I suspect that if such an admission occurs it will be followed by the claim that commodification and objectification are surely not so bad after all.
The research agenda: Australia’s experience
Australians have been shocked by two recent cases of would-be parents abandoning children to their surrogates in Thailand and India, with one – coincidentally a convicted child sex-abuser – even having the audacity to seek a refund. But it is not hard to imagine the popular reaction morphing from disgust at “irresponsible parenthood”, to contempt at “breach of contract”, and then dismay at the complications surrounding children who – if not strictly parentless – are effectively commissioned goods left uncollected.