May Researchers Use "Biological Material" Unjustly Obtained?

Considerations of “Grave Reasons” and Exceptions

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By William E. May

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 15, 2010 ( If an unborn baby in the fetal or embryonic stage of life dies as a result of a miscarriage it would not be immoral to do worthwhile scientific research using tissues taken from it.

But, as Germain Grisez noted in his massive book on “Difficult Moral Questions,” a serious problem of conscience can frequently face pro-life scientists and researchers regarding use of tissues taken from embryonic or fetal human persons who were intentionally aborted.

The quandary is the following: Suppose that it is not possible to do the research proposed by using spontaneously aborted unborn babies who miscarry. For example, certain research may require using embryonic/fetal tissue that must be fresh and not frozen or in any way not normal and tissues from miscarried embryos/fetuses do not meet these criteria. What should a conscientious pro-life person do if his research center agreed to use biological material obtained as a result of the intentional abortion of babies in their embryonic or fetal stages of life?

Grisez concluded that the scientist ought not participate in the research nor cooperate with it in any way, even by advising a colleague who would take his place but who is not as knowledgeable about the science involved as he is. Grisez, however, thinks that if certain conditions are fulfilled, he could offer this colleague some advice if it justified tolerating bad side effects that would accompany the discovery of a procedure that would also greatly benefit unborn babies (pp. 385-388).

Grisez’s book was published before the 2009 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document “Dignitas Personae,” in which the question of using “biological materials” obtained illegally is addressed. I will summarize the teaching of “Dignitas Personae” and then offer comments on it.

Biological materials illegally procured

Part III of “Dignitas Personae” is called “New treatments which involve the manipulation of the embryo or human genetic patrimony.” No. 34 first identifies a common situation causing moral problems: “For scientific research and for the production of vaccines or other products, cell lines are at times used which are the result of an illicit intervention against the life or physical integrity of a human being. The connection to the unjust act may be either mediate or immediate, since it is generally a question of cells which reproduce easily and abundantly. This ‘material’ is sometimes made available commercially or distributed freely to research centers by governmental agencies having this function under the law. All of this gives rise to various ethical problems with regard to cooperation in evil and with regard to scandal. It is fitting therefore to formulate general principles on the basis of which people of good conscience can evaluate and resolve situations in which they may possibly be involved on account of their professional activity (emphasis in original)” (“Dignitas Personae,” No. 35).

No. 35 points out a somewhat different situation — the precise one of concern to us — with its set of moral issues, stating: “A different situation is created when researchers use ‘biological material’ of illicit origin which has been produced apart from their research center or which has been obtained commercially. The Instruction ‘Donum Vitae’ formulated the general principle which must be observed in these cases: ‘The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided'” (“Donum Vitae,” I, 4).

In a centrally important passage, No. 35 then considers the “criterion of independence” proposed by some. According to this passage, the use of such “biological material” would be ethically permissible provided there is a clear separation between those who produce, freeze, and cause the death of embryos and researchers involved in scientific experimentation.

“Dignitas Personae” expresses caution here, arguing that of itself this criterion might not be sufficient “to avoid a contradiction in the attitude of the person who says that he does not approve of the injustice perpetrated by others, but at the same time accepts for his own work the ‘biological material’ which the others have obtained by means of that injustice.

“When the illicit action is endorsed by the laws which regulate health care and scientific research, it is necessary to distance oneself from the evil aspects of that system in order not to give the impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust. Any appearance of acceptance would in fact contribute to the growing indifference to, if not the approval of, such actions in certain medical and political circles.”

In fact, “there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life. Therefore, the above-mentioned criterion of independence is necessary, but may be ethically insufficient.”

Nonetheless, “Dignitas Personae” goes on to declare: “Within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’ Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents (emphasis added) to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision” (No. 35).


Christian Brugger offers important observations on the treatment of this issue in “Dignitas Personae.”[1] Commenting on the passage in No. 35 about the duty to refuse to use such “biological material,” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, he wonders whether this would apply to an epidemiologist in 2009 doing research on the WI-38 or MRC-5 cell lines, or to vaccines derived from those lines, given that both were taken from electively aborted fetuses?[2]

The moral wrong — the grave evil of abortion — was done nearly 45 years ago. Is a researcher’s duty to refuse to work on those materials exceptionless, even when the refusal could result in harms to the researcher and to his or her family? The text of “Dignitas Personae” indicates that it is not exceptionless. It states that “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material'” (No. 35). But the Instruction “Dignitas Personae,” following the 2005 Pontifical Academy for Life text, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses,” only mentions parents consenting for grave reasons to their children’s immunization. Where does this leave morally conscientious researchers?”

I think that if the research is the kind that reasonably promises to provide a great benefit to unborn human subjects who are vulnerable to specific kinds of pathologies
from which the research will protect them, as was the case of the research involved in the WI-38 and MRC-5 experiments that Brugger summarizes, then the kind of exception allowed for by “Dignitas Personae,” No 35, is present. In all likelihood this kind of exception may simply not have occurred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in preparing the 1987 Instruction “Donum Vitae.” It seems to me analogous to the situation discussed by Grisez when he thought the solid pro-life researcher could advise a colleague less knowledgeable than he about using unjustly obtained embryonic/fetal tissues in research that reasonably promised great benefit to the unborn, tolerating the evils involved.


[1] See his “Strengths and Weaknesses of Dignitas Personae,” in the “Symposium on Dignitas Personae,” in National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 9.3 (Autumn 2009), 461-481; at 480-481).

[2] Research on these cell lines led to therapies that greatly benefited embryonic and fetal human babies; Brugger gives detailed descriptions of them and cites relevant literature in footnotes to his essay.

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William E. May, is a Senior Fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and retired Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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