(CNN) Fetal tissue has been used since the 1930s for vaccine development, and more recently to help advance stem cell research and treatments for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease. Researchers typically take tissue samples from a fetus that has been aborted (under conditions permitted by law) and grow cells from the tissue in Petri dishes.
Many of the uses of fetal tissue — and much of the debate — are not new. "It's just that the public is finding out about it," said Insoo Hyun, associate professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University.
The federal regulations state that women must decide to have an abortion before clinicians can ask whether they would like to donate fetal tissue. One concern is that women would have more pregnancies or abortions because they want to donate fetal tissue. In addition, clinicians performing the abortions cannot receive payment from researchers who will receive fetal materials, except for reimbursement for costs such as shipping.
Despite the long history of using fetal tissue in medicine and research, the practice could be on the way out. Even though it has led to important medical advances in the last several decades, "in the future, the need for fetal tissue will go down because of advances in stem cell [technology] that will take over," Hyun said. Continue reading