Trump’s Treatment and Fetal Tissue

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White House physician Sean Conley (right) walks with other doctors to speak to the media about President Donald Trump’s conidtion, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., October 4, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Antonio Regalado reports for MIT Technology Review:

When the president faced a deadly encounter with covid-19, his administration raised no objections over the fact that the new drugs also relied on fetal cells, and anti-abortion campaigners were silent too. Most likely, their hypocrisy was unwitting. Many types of medical and vaccine research employ supplies of cells originally acquired from abortion tissue. It would have taken an expert to realize that was the case with Trump’s treatment.

Last Friday, as Trump developed worrisome symptoms of covid-19, the president received an emergency cocktail of anti-coronavirus antibodies made by Regeneron. These molecules are manufactured in cells from a hamster’s ovary, so-called “CHO” cells, according to the company—not in human cells.

But cells originally derived from a fetus were used in another way. According to Regeneron, laboratory tests used to assess the potency of its antibodies employed a standardized supply of cells called HEK 293T, whose origin was kidney tissue from an abortion in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

There is some dispute about this last point. Professor Frank Graham, who established the cell line, recently wrote that the cells may have had their origin in a spontaneous miscarriage. If, however, the conventional account of their origin is the correct one, the question becomes whether someone who recognizes abortion to be a grave injustice may licitly use a medical treatment that was developed in a way that involved that injustice. This Public Discourse essay concludes that under certain conditions, the answer is yes. (As does this one; both are very good.) Those conditions include that the use of the treatment does not encourage additional abortions and occurs for a virtuous reason (such as, in this case, saving multiple lives). There need not be any hypocrisy.

A similar issue arose during the George W. Bush administration as it considered federal funding for stem-cell lines that had involved the destruction of human embryos in their production. Bush’s policy, supported by most pro-lifers, was to fund research using only those lines that had been produced prior to the announcement that funding would be available. That way, the funding would not encourage more destruction of human embryos.

That policy was extremely controversial. Critics said it restricted funding too much, sacrificing medical progress in the name of a misplaced scruple. It was not, however, frequently held to be hypocritical to seek to make something good of (what Bush rightly considered to be) past evils.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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