How an aborted fetus may have saved your life (and the lives of many other fetuses)

Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.

WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.

But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?

Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News


  1. I have a friend who works in reproductive medicine, who is now a councilor in the field.
    We had a discussion somewhat related to this years ago.
    I asked her what the greatest ethical dilemma was she’s ever faced with infertility treatments. She replied it was what to do with leftover fetuses from IVF. Apparently there are (were?) thousands of fertilized blastocysts in cold storage that nobody knows what to do with as clinics lost contact of the parents, or the parents only wanted to try to implant one at a time and considered any disposal of blastocysts to be abortion which they were strictly against.

    At the time she was doing all she could to discourage parents from having too many oocytes fertilized, and to get consent for research donation for any extras.

    I don’t know the current status of the situation, but it seemed very sad from any angle I tried to see it from, and is a reason why I don’t think I’d ever want to do IVF.

    Then there’s the hypocrisy of a certain set of fundies (people I know even) who get IVF knowing they’re generating many blastocysts, but thinking what they’re doing is not wrong in their god’s eyes, as long as these blastocysts just stay on ice forever or until a power outage (act of god) destroys them.

      1. In downtown Seattle, in the University District? I’d say that’s an unlikely place to have the power go out barring an earthquake.
        And the freezers in a fertility clinic and research center like that would have a pretty secure UPS.

        There’s a lot more in those freezers than orphaned blastocysts.

          1. It’s only playing god when you engineer corn stalks to grow an army of nicotine addicted supersoldiers with marginal strength and hypersensitivity to pain.
            “Hey Rusty!”

    1. Actually, I’m more okay with the hypocritical fundies than I am with the branch that wants to ban IVF, too. They exist. And they’re starting to make more noise about it. 

      I didn’t end up needing IVF to get pregnant, but it’s something my husband and I talked about a lot (it took us two years to get knocked up successfully), and if we’d gone that route, we’d have happily donated any extra blastocysts to science and not really had any problems doing so. 

      There’s room for different people to feel differently about a ball of 70-100 cells. It’s reasonable that we’d all make different choices here. But I am worried (and I think, legitimately worried) about the people who think their choice should be everybody’s only choice. 

      1. Yeah.  I’d rather have the abandoned blastocysts be put to good use for humanity than let them languish forgotten in a freezer.

        I’m all for IVF being an option, it’s not my place to say whether it should be available or not.  And it makes a lot of people happy, gives them a shot at starting their own family, and how can I be against that?
        It just seems almost selfish to spend lots of money on IVF and fertility treatments when there’s a long standing pileup of children who need to be adopted.  That’s all.
        It’s a tough decision whatever one chooses, and I think that if I’d ever have kids, I’d want to adopt.

        It’s an opinion, and personal preference informed mostly by my own history as an adopted child.  And I’m really glad I have great parents, who unquestionably treat me as their own son.  I’d want to give kids who otherwise wouldn’t have parents a chance at that.  Which isn’t to say that I’ll ever have kids.  It’s one hypothetical after another.

        1. The thing about having children: All the decisions you make — including whether you want them or not — are kind of inherently selfish. 

          And, I have to say, I would have said the same as you about adoption three years ago. But letting go of the idea of wanting to give birth to a kid that is genetically from you and accepting that you can’t do it … that’s like accepting a death in a lot of ways. It can be really hard. I’d rather people do what they have to do to work through that than adopt with those feelings still sitting there. 

          Besides which, there’s actually not a huge backlog of babies needing adoption. Older foster kids, yes. Babies, no. 

          Basically, for the most part, I’m not going to critique anybody’s decisions when it comes to this. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to call any of those choices selfish, except in the sense that they’re all selfish, because that’s the nature of having kids. 

          1. Good points.  I’ve actually not given very much thought to having kids myself, in fact the idea is almost repulsive to me.  In the sense that I feel dread at the idea of dedicating a vast portion of my life to someone other than me.  It’s sort of bifurcated thinking, in that children are people, but when I think of having my own, I can’t seem to help but react emotionally as if they’re some kind of parasite.

            I freely admit that I don’t want kids because I’m too selfish, and that just goes to show I’m not really any better than the fundies I disparage, when it comes to hypocrisy.

          2. I have to disagree with your opening and closing lines.  I don’t think choosing to adopt instead of breeding children (I have done both) is necessarily & inherently a selfish decision.  My own choices are based on my own ethics which are a part of my self, yes, but if you try to stretch the term “selfish” to include every action one can possibly take, the word becomes meaningless.  I have met prospective adoptive gay parents and singles who specifically wanted to adopt because they had become aware of the issues, not because they had ever wanted to reproduce or fill an empty space in their lives (although that probably describes the majority of adoptive parents, I admit).

            You are quite right that there are only a few thousand babies in need of adoption for every hundred thousand older children who desperately need us to step up and forgo breeding.  In the USA, the largest age group in the above linked table is the 1 to 5 year olds; in other places, it might be different – I haven’t the cash resources for foreign adoption, and I’m an “act locally” type, so I haven’t looked.

            Your second paragraph may be very insightful; it’s hard for me to tell.  I accepted my inevitable death long before I became convinced of the need for adoption, so I’m not very objective.  I strongly encourage everyone reading this to consider adoption, though – at least go to an agency and leaf through the huge binders full of pictures of children who need families far more than any of us need children.  You might find that’s all it takes to resolve any fears or unresolved biological urges.

  2. And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never
    received compensation, despite the money that’s been made off selling
    WI-38 cell cultures?


    1.  I didn’t see it that way.  In any case there’s no doubt that abortion will always be with us, at least for the very wealthy who are above the law (perhaps not for the poor, since overpopulation keeps labor cheap).  You are right, though, that the questions become the same as the questions about Nazi and Tuskegee medical data – should we allow something obtained in an objectionable way to benefit people?  Is it all right if objectionable people can reap great personal profit from this, or is that too much incentive towards bad behavior?  I think the questions are interesting, but I don’t see Maggie trying to answer them, just to bring them to light.

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