There is certainty that if a pregnant woman is infected with syphilis, the baby can also be infected and be born with congenital syphilis, blindness, damage to the heart and great vessels and bones and almost any organ. If the mother's allergic to penicillin, there's no good information on what should be done. We got partial answers from the study.
Q: What other benefits could come out of fetal research?
Sabath: The problem of congenital anomalies is also one we ought to know more about. Some information in examining fetal tissues may help in that area. And the whole problem of mental retardation and the possible harm that drugs can cause. Everybody knows about the thalidomide tragedy, but the possibility that other drugs may be causing damage may never be known if the proper observations aren't made.
Another huge problem. Embryogenesis (development from fertilized egg to birth) is the best example in biology for controlled growth. What's learned about the normal biology of embryogenesis could probably have enormous bearing on our understanding of growth and therefore abnormal growth: cancer. One of the main uses for fetal tissue now is for growing what we call oncogenic viruses, those that cause cancer. If I should get cancer when I'm 60 or 70, I'd be very disappointed that some of these so-called Right to Lifers have actually interfered with finding a cure for a disease from which I may personally die.
Another area is mental illness; another, longevity; another, cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in this country. Although most of the emphasis is on adults, are there differences that are detectable earlier, in intrauterine life?
Q: What do you think of experimenting on live aborted fetuses?
Sabath: There are three types of research on fetuses. House Bill 5767 specifically prevents research on dead fetuses, which I think is gross insanity. The second type of research is with cell lines. When an adult or a fetus dies, different tissues die at different rates, and some tissues may be viable if they're put in the right tissue culture. Those tissues, in fact, are being shipped all over the country right now. I personally think it would be ludicrous to prevent that.
The third type which I think many people cringe at is research on whole, live fetuses. If you take the extreme position that from the moment a cell is fertilized it is an entire being (which I think is one way of looking at it), and you're interested in the welfare of that being, somewhere along the line you're going to have to do some experiments on it. Just as we do with adults. You wouldn't undertake it lightly, but to absolutely prohibit it would be to say we don't want any substantial progress.
Q: Is there any research suggesting the fetus feels pain?
Sabath: I've seen a lot of psychological literature saying that birth trauma is supposed to be a terrible thing from which we never completely recover. Fetuses certainly do respond to all kinds of stimuli, so I think there's no question that you have to balance the possible risks and the possible danger and the moral considerations. We even do some painful things to adults.
One thing puzzles me: the proposition that obstetricians must do everything possible to try to help keep the fetus alive (after an abortion). That sounds like an experiment to me.