Consenting to the Unconscionable

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

In recent years, scientists in industry and academia have come to rely on freshly obtained human tissue specimens for certain types of research and experimentation. Sometimes these tissues and organs can be obtained after routine surgeries like gall bladder removal from adults or foreskin removal during the circumcision of newborns. The use of such tissues and organs can be morally acceptable if the patient (or the parents of the newborn) provide informed consent. The use of cells and tissues from fetuses can also be morally acceptable when those cells are obtained from a natural miscarriage, and the parents provide consent. This would be equivalent to consenting to an organ donation from their deceased child.

Recently, however, a phenomenon has come to light that involves the partnering of biomedical researchers with abortionists, for the purpose of securing a reliable supply of human tissues and organs. In these cases, parental consent (usually from the mother) may be sought prior to using the aborted child’s remains. Researchers claim this consent is necessary to enable the ethical use of the cells or tissues. This procedural detail is frequently described in the section called “Materials and Methods” found in scientific research papers, as, for example, in this February 2015 article on brain research in the journal Science:

“Human fetal brain tissue was obtained from the [clinic], following elective pregnancy termination and informed written maternal consents, and with approval of the local University Hospital Ethical Review Committees.”

Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the United States, also seeks maternal consent prior to procuring fetal body parts from direct abortions, as chronicled by the Center for Medical Progress in their bombshell 2015 video exposé in which the sales of fetal heart, lungs, brain and liver were discussed and negotiated.

The strong public outcry that followed these revelations of harvesting fetal organs was understandable on the one hand, yet difficult to explain on the other, since there hadn’t been a parallel outcry when it came to the more offensive act of terminating the life of the unborn child itself. As one commentator observed, “Maybe it is not enough to be outraged at abortion on its face because, I don’t know, killing is somehow worse if body parts are sold.”

Despite this inconsistency, it is nonetheless clear that the use of tissues and organs from direct abortions raises significant moral concerns, even if the mother’s signature may have been sought and obtained.

Typically when we serve as a proxy for someone and give consent on their behalf, we act simply as their agent and provide an affirmation of their original wishes (“yes, he told me he wanted to donate his kidneys”). Alternatively, if we do not know the wishes of the deceased patient, we do our best to make a reasonable decision based on the specifics of their situation, using a “best interest” standard (“based on my friendship with him and concern for him, I think he really would have wanted to donate his kidneys). When we serve as a proxy decision maker for a fetus, an infant, or a deceased child prior to the age of reason, it is incumbent on us to make a “best interest” decision on their behalf. The assumption is that as we cared for them in life, and had their best interests in mind while they were living, we can continue to exercise that “best interest” decision-making capacity later when they are deceased.

But if the mother of an aborted child were to sign the dotted line granting permission to utilize fetal cells and organs, that consent would necessarily be void, because she would have already categorically demonstrated that she does not have the best interests of her child in mind, having arranged for the taking of that child’s life. From the ethical point of view, she has disqualified herself from being able to give valid informed consent on behalf of her now-deceased child.

In the absence of proper informed consent, taking organs or tissues from the corpse would represent a further violation of the integrity of the child’s body and constitute a failure to respect the remains of the dead. Thus, the tissues and organs of the directly aborted child should not be utilized for research, transplantation or the development of therapies, but instead should be given a proper and respectful burial. In the final analysis, maternal consent cannot provide moral clearance for researchers to utilize fetal remains from direct abortions in their research. Such permission from the mother is not, objectively speaking, an authentic form of consent but is rather a type of “sham consent” that secures the veneer of legitimacy for what is ultimately an unconscionable research practice.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org

COMING UP: Celebrate and support the sacred gift of life

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Editor’s Note: This column is adapted from Archbishop Aquila’s remarks to the 2018 Celebrate Life March, which took place on January 13th in front of the Colorado State Capitol building.

As we gather today to celebrate life, we must remember three things: 1) life is a gift, 2) life is sacred, and 3) rebuilding a culture of life requires joy.

We are here today to celebrate our joy over the gift of life. Every minute and every day we live presents us with an abundance of gifts that seem mundane and are often overlooked: our health, the gift of creation, or something as simple as having food on our plates. Above all, we should give thanks for the gift of life!

As people involved in protecting life at every stage, the challenge we face is not just one of providing resources to mothers and fathers in need or ensuring people battling a terminal illness have good palliative care. Our challenge is to also communicate to them that they are loved, that their unborn child or their own lives are gifts, no matter the circumstances.

Many of us fought in 2016 to prevent doctor-assisted suicide from becoming legal in Colorado, and one person who helped in that effort was a courageous man named J.J. Hanson. J.J. was a Marine veteran and father of two young children who was working for a real estate investment firm in Florida when he found out he had glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. His doctors told him that it was a very aggressive cancer that meant he only had four months to live.

Despite his odds, J.J. resolved to fight. His motto was: “Every single day is a gift, and we can’t let that go.” What’s even more remarkable is the fact that J.J. dedicated his time and energy to fighting the legalization of assisted suicide around the country, all while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. There was hardly a speaking engagement or trip to testify before a legislature that J.J. turned down. His conviction that life was a gift propelled him to defend that gift however he could. As pro-life people, we need to have that same conviction.

Just about two weeks ago, on December 30th, J.J. was called home to the Father – three years beyond what doctors told him to expect. St. Anthony of Padua church in upstate New York, where his funeral was held, was filled with people who paid tribute to how J.J. inspired them to embrace every moment of life, no matter its difficulties as a gift, not something to be thrown away.

All of us are called to embrace life as J.J. did, and in doing so we will help recover the culture of life that is being neglected or forgotten as people cast God and truth aside.

I have said that life is a gift, and while that is true, it’s more than that. Life is also sacred. Life is sacred because it comes from God, the God who is love and who has loved us first. Our lives are also sacred because our beings are made in God’s image and likeness.

We are called to participate in the love of God and to see that every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death, is invited into relationship with God. We are called to ensure that life is set aside for God, that it is honored and recognized as sacred.

The struggle for so many today is that they do not even believe in a god; their only god is themselves. They truly do not believe in the God who is love. And because of this limited worldview, a person’s life can lose its value if their “quality of life” declines.

In the words of Pope Francis to participants in the 2013 Day for Life, “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

When Jesus speaks about the Judgement of the Nations in Matthew 25, he tells us that life is always sacred by saying that when we love the weak and vulnerable, we are loving him.

The more that we can love the sacred gift of life and celebrate it with joy, the more we will contribute to building a true culture of life in the U.S.

A wonderful example of concretely loving the sacred gift of life is a story I recently heard about a 15-year-old Colorado teenager named Missy, who showed up with her parents at an abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Missy was a sophomore in high school and was in her second trimester of pregnancy. As they approached the clinic, some pro-life volunteers who were parked nearby in a mobile crisis pregnancy van saw them and invited them inside. The volunteers learned that Missy wanted to complete high school and that this desire was pushing her to consider an abortion. One of the volunteers told Missy about how she was faced with the same choice as a teen and chose to keep her child. “It wasn’t easy, but it was amazing,” she reassured Missy.

Missy also worried about the father of the child not being around, to which her dad responded by taking her hand and saying, “I’ll be that man in your child’s life.”

This kind of accompaniment and willingness to heroically support the gift of life is vitally important to forming a culture that welcomes the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the dying as a gift.

Building a culture of life begins by first receiving the love of the Father, who loves each of us as his sons and daughters. He never abandons us, even though we might abandon him or reject his love.

A culture of life grows when we share his love with others, helping them to embrace life as a gift and a joy, rather than a burden.

Life is a gift, it is sacred and our celebration of the joy of life helps build a culture of life.

I encourage you to be those who are unafraid to give witness to life. Be not afraid to give witness to life. Even though people might ridicule you, yell at you, or reject you, know that Jesus experienced it all so that you might have life, and life abundantly.

May God bless you and help you celebrate life in 2018!