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Foetal tissue row at the core of donor ethics

By Liam Clarke

Many people like me leave instructions for their organs to be used by others after death. Others agree to body parts or the whole body being used for medical research.

Few object to that, but what about the bodies of aborted foetuses or stillbirths? They can't give consent, and it seems right that their parents should be asked to do so.

That is the basis of an ongoing moral panic in the US, where there is a vote in the House of Representatives to end federal funding to Planned Parenthood, an organisation roughly analogous to Marie Stopes.

The difference is that, especially for women in poor communities, Planned Parenthood is much more a mainstream part of US healthcare.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that permanent defunding would cost the government tens of millions of dollars and deprive up to 650,000 women of access to reproductive healthcare.

The concern is fuelled by undercover videos released by the Centre for Medical Progress (CMP), a campaigning group. One showed Planned Parenthood official Mary Gatter and two CMP representatives masquerading as representatives of a firm interested in buying foetal tissue from Planned Parenthood clinics.

The Los Angeles Times published a transcript. It reported: "CMP's heading on this video is 'Planned Parenthood Senior Executive Haggles Over Baby Parts Prices, Changes Abortion Methods'. In fact, viewing the video and reading the transcript shows that all the haggling is done by CMP's people, who keep trying to get Gatter to raise her price for foetal tissue."

Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organisation. In another video, the CMP is told explicitly it was operating on a break-even basis. "Affiliates are not looking to make money by doing this," it is told. "They're looking to serve their patients and just make it not impact their bottom line."

Planned Parenthood states: "At several of our health centres, we help patients who want to donate tissue for scientific research, and we do this just like every other high-quality healthcare provider does - with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards."

Questions persist over whether next-of-kin consented to the tissue being used. There was a similar case here a few years back, where placental tissue was being sold to French cosmetic companies - a far less important purpose.

It also happened here that bodies of stillborn children were taken from women and disposed of. In every case parents should be satisfied with what is done, whether that is a legal requirement or not.

It is a case worth watching, and it is starting to play big in the US Presidential campaign.

"I'm not sure we need half-a-billion dollars for women's health issues," was how Republican hopeful Jeb Bush addressed the issue.

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