We return to a saga of the abuse of human fetal remains by the University of Pittsburgh’s medical research laboratory. We have covered the accusations of the misuse of human tissue in laboratory experiments as well as the deeply flawed investigation by the law firm Hyman, Phelps, and McNamara (HPM), which was inspired by a loud public outcry. Pitt engaged in a horrific experiment in grafting human skin to rats and mice, supplied with aborted fetal tissue from a source that the university has not consistently identified. The horrifying images of human infant hair growing from the backs of mice and rats was sufficient to outrage and disgust, but it was the renewed scrutiny over the public funding of the University’s research that raised demands for an inquiry, which HPM conducted last spring. The inquiry was intended to answer burning questions of direct import to Pitt’s compliance with federal law, which prohibits the commercial exchange of fetal tissue and requires informed consent of the mother after a 24-hour waiting period to use fetal tissue for research.
The 40-page “regulatory assessment” that the inquiry produced cleared the University of Pittsburgh of any legal wrongdoing. However, this result was tainted by HPM’s decision to construe its objective of a legal review in the narrowest manner possible. The inquiry refused to even consider the nature of the University of Pittsburgh’s relationship with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, a relationship that is, strictly speaking, legal, but raises a wide variety of ethical questions. HPM also refused to look into the practices of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the source of the most serious accusations, referring to UMPC as an “independent third party” despite the extensive financial and organizational ties between it and the University. The irregularities in how the University of Pittsburgh obtained consent from the mothers for the use of their fetal tissue were dismissed as “primarily technical” and lacking actionable legal import. Perhaps most egregiously, the report does not mention investigating the question of whether the fetuses were still alive when tissue was harvested from their bodies, an act which meets the legal definition of infanticide according to Pennsylvania law.
Naturally, while this report staved off any legal troubles that Pitt might have feared, it failed to answer the most urgent ethical questions about their conduct. No one who is disgusted by the ethical implications of research that uses human lives as raw material is likely to be satisfied by a report that deals only with the technical legalities, especially when those legalities are clearly being stretched to their limit to give Pitt as much wiggle room as possible. It is perhaps not surprising then, that a letter has emerged, signed by 89 members of both houses of Congress, which urges a review of the University’s federal funding. The letter is addressed to the Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the National Institute of Health, the source of a federal grant for university research using fetal tissue. Specifically, it requests an audit of a grant of approximately $1.5 Million for the university’s “GenitoUrinary Developmental Molecular Anatomy Project Tissue Hub and Collection Site.” The project is described as a significant supplement to the university’s Health Sciences Tissue Bank (HSTB) in order to provide human tissue for medical experimentation regarding diseases of kidneys and the urinary system.
Of chief concern is the HSTB, which is described as having “been involved in human tissue procurement for over 18 years, with a long-standing history of collecting, maintaining and disbursing quality samples to research scientists, both in-house and outside the University of Pittsburgh.” The ethics of Pitt’s process for collecting this tissue has already been called into question, but the congressional letter hones in on a particularly disturbing phrasing in the university’s research application. In describing its tissue collection protocol, the university’s grant application states that “warm ischemia time is minimized.” Warm ischemia time refers to the amount of time a body remains at body temperature after its blood supply has been reduced or terminated. Pitt assures the NIH that this time is minimized “to ensure the highest quality biological specimens.”
Federal law prohibits “alteration of the timing, method, or procedures used to terminate the pregnancy [..] made solely for the purposes of obtaining the tissue.” In other words, no abortion can be performed solely for the purpose of acquiring fetal tissue for the research, and no methods used solely for the purpose of preserving this tissue for medical research. If, in fact, Pitt is involved in the alteration of abortion procedures calculated to minimize warm ischemia time of the tissue, it is doing so in violation of federal law. What’s more, the question of whether the university harvests tissue from living fetuses remains unanswered; this would also be contrary to federal law, which requires compliance with state laws in taking fetal tissue.
The US Department of Health and Human Services has up to this point refused to act on these questions, instead referring them to a third-party firm in dereliction of its regulatory duty. This refusal is particularly egregious in light of the anemic regulatory assessment by HPM. We urge the HHS to do its duty and follow through with the congressional request for an audit of Pitt’s research funding. Pitt cannot be allowed to continue its abuse of corpses funded by the public dollar in violation of the laws of our republic.