Issue of Fetal Remains Shouldn't be Demagogued

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 12:00

This Op-ed ran in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, March 13, 2000.

Who is profiting from the exploitation of fetal remains? The disposition of fetal remains and body parts is already strictly regulated by federal law. Violators are subject to criminal penalties, and these penalties should be strictly enforced. But by holding Congressional hearings to investigate alleged trafficking in fetal tissue, anti-abortion members of Congress have used fetal remains to their own advantage.

These politicians should respect the consensus achieved by the scientists, ethicists and elected officials who wrote the laws. They should insist that the laws be enforced against all parties who use fetal tissue illegally, including anti-abortion zealots. Most important, Congressional representatives should themselves refrain from exploiting fetal remains for political profit.

Last week the House Commerce Committee held hearings to investigate whether fetal tissue is being bought and sold in violation of federal law. This follows a report earlier on ABC's television news magazine 20/20, alleging that unscrupulous doctors and clinics are selling fetal body parts for profit. The story was macabre and shocking. Who but the most depraved criminal would scheme to benefit from the sale of human body parts? Yet while it may be illegal to profit financially from the sale of fetal tissue, nothing prevents the anti-abortion lobby from exploiting fetal remains for political profit.

A corrupt pathologist-entrepreneur told 20/20's undercover reporter that his company will sell fetal tissue and organs to researchers for prices as high as the market will bear. When 20/20 showed the footage to commentators, everyone from Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt to ethicist Arthur Caplan agreed that these actions were reprehensible and should be punished. Meanwhile, the legal means for prosecution are already on the books. In fact, laws against fetal-tissue research and trafficking in fetal body parts are tougher and more effective today than at any point in this country's history. The sale of fetal tissue is prohibited under the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act and the National Organ Transplant Act. The proper response to violations is to arrest and prosecute the offenders.

By agreeing to hold hearings, members of the Commerce Committee allowed themselves to be used as pawns. They have relied on information compiled by a renegade anti-abortion organization, Life Dynamics, based in Denton, Texas. Founded in 1992 by Mark Crutcher, Life Dynamics trains anti-abortion activists and devises new strategies to turn the public against abortion.

Life Dynamics' latest tactic is outlined in its pamphlet, "Baby Parts Marketing." This sensationalist tract describes a litany of fetuses allegedly dissected alive and sold in pieces to a secret research industry.

Testimony concerning this was provided by Lawrence D. Alberty, Jr., who later admitted to 20/20 that Life Dynamics had paid him $10,000 to work undercover in one of the clinics. The Times reported that Alberty admitted he had fabricated claims he made on a video for Life Dynamics. Yet those incriminating details are no longer relevant, because Life Dynamics got what it wanted: Congressional hearings.

The only reason to hold hearings is to provide anti-abortion activists a platform for their lurid propaganda. Anti-abortion members of Congress are only too eager to go along with this strategy. They denied a Democratic petition to have closed door hearings because they wanted to insure that the public would hear the morbid claims compiled by anti-abortion activists. Clearly, anti-abortion Congressmen are using their political power to exploit dead fetuses. Other anti-abortion activists have not limited themselves to rhetorical posturing.

The literal exploitation of fetal remains has become a standard tactic for anti-abortion activists. During the Democratic Convention in 1992, Harley David Belew presented a dead fetus to Bill Clinton. Activists have thrust dead fetuses at women during clinic protests, pulled them out as evidence in courtrooms and thrown them at politicians on the campaign trail. The extremist Pro-Life Action League in Chicago has conducted "body finds," swiping fetal remains from pathology labs and sending them to anti-abortion groups around the country for well-publicized burials.

Now the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering holding its own hearings. None of these incidents is likely to be raised however, because the point of the hearings is to discredit abortion and fetal research by associating these practices with the grisly crime of selling body parts.