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Imagine if the next debate among the Republican presidential candidates started with the moderator asking all the participants who are parents to raise their hands if their children received the polio vaccine as infants. Then the candidates should be instructed to lower their hands if they would have refused this vaccination if they knew that it was developed from research using fetal tissue. Assuming the candidates responded honestly, I speculate that none would report a willingness to have forgone protecting their children against polio.
If the debate were to start this way—and sadly it probably won’t—it would expose the candidates’ hypocrisy on fetal tissue research (as well as how tortuous the larger issue of vaccines is for Republicans, leading to mixed statements on the part of many of the contenders). Americans as a whole believe in vaccines, though a vocal minority, most of which is associated with the Republican base, do not; similarly, Planned Parenthood, which has been relentlessly demonized because of the false charges of “selling” fetal tissue to researchers, is far more admired by the public than any of the Republican candidates. Yet to satisfy its base—who are the most likely to vote in primaries—the Republican candidates have been compelled to outdo each other in bashing Planned Parenthood, and by extension, fetal tissue research.
The fact that the candidate Dr. Ben Carson, currently running second in the polls behind Donald Trump, was discovered to have himself conducted such research, did not seem to matter; reminiscent of anti-abortion women who show up in a clinic for an abortion and claim that their abortions are morally justified, but that everyone else in the waiting room is a slut, Carson confusingly and erroneously tried to claim that his research using fetal tissue was legitimate, while other research of this type was obtained from abortions done specifically to obtain such tissue.
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As this sorry spectacle of manufactured hysteria about Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research plays out, it occurs to me that many Americans now alive simply do not remember the absolute terror of contracting polio that was rampant before the vaccine became widely available in the mid-1950s. As a very young child in that era, I have memories of horror stories of children and adults in “iron lungs” ( a large respirator which allowed polio patients, whose lung muscles had been paralyzed by the polio virus, to breathe), of people’s fears of going to swimming pools and other public places because of the chance of contagion, and hearing the unspeakably sad news of deaths from this scourge. As an adult, I have seen the considerable difficulties of post-polio syndrome, progressive muscle weakness, atrophy, and fatigue, which can strike those who were fortunate enough to survive the disease—sometimes 40 years after contracting the disease itself.
In short, the development of the polio vaccine (which won a Nobel Prize for its discoverers) was one of the greatest public health triumphs of history. By 1979, the disease was eradicated in the United States. Progress in the rest of the world has been slower, but very encouraging. Africa, for example, recently marked a polio-free year, and public health experts are hopeful about a complete global eradication by the year 2018. As these experts point out, if this campaign is successful, it would only be the second time in history that a disease affecting humans has been eradicated (the other being smallpox).
And the polio vaccine was not the only one to come from fetal tissue research. Other vaccines, including those for hepatitis A, chickenpox, rubella, and rabies, have resulted from studies based on donated fetal tissue. Furthermore, fetal tissue research may also bring promising future developments, such as in the study or treatment of juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, HIV, and breast cancer.
Dismayingly, those who should be leading the defense of fetal tissue research—the scientists in the more than 50 institutions where this research takes place—have, with a few exceptions, been intimidated into silence because of fears of anti-abortion harassment and violence. A science editor for BuzzFeed recently wrote about contacting 70 researchers in this field and not finding one who would speak with her for attribution.
One scholar who has not been afraid to speak up is R. Alta Charo, a noted bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. In a stirring defense of fetal tissue research in the New England Journal of Medicine, Charo denounced the politically motivated attacks on this research as “a betrayal of the people whose lives could be saved by the research and a violation of that most fundamental duty of medicine and health policy, the duty of care.”
As Charo’s words suggest, the current battle over fetal tissue research is but the latest example of a longstanding feature of American politics: the war on science by the right. This includes the denial of climate change, the skepticism about evolution, the insistence that birth control pills cause abortions—the list goes drearily on. And, of course, the eagerness of the candidates to bash Planned Parenthood is an equally fundamental tenet of right-wing politics—an opposition to this organization not only because of its abortion services, but also because of its support for non-procreative sexuality that occurs outside of heterosexual marriage.
It is an open question, however, as to how these harsh attacks on both fetal research and Planned Parenthood will fare once Republican candidates must appeal to those beyond their most fervid primary voters. One might be cautiously optimistic that even in a degraded political environment such as ours, most voters will think that getting rid of diseases is a good thing.