Originally published on the Daily Lobo
By Celia Raney and Brendon Gray
Abortion clinic officials say they always seek consent from patient
Pro-life campus groups are protesting the use of human fetal tissue in research conducted at UNM Health Sciences Center.
In mid-February, Students for Life of America and Students for Life UNM held a rally outside the SUB and submitted a letter to acting University President Chaouki Abdallah protesting the controversial research and the methods by which it is conducted.
“We, the undersigned members of the University of New Mexico community, ask that you immediately halt our school’s participation in collecting, using and distributing aborted baby body parts,” states the letter, written by students. “We find it unconscionable that the University we love so much would be part of this barbaric practice. All human beings ought to be treated with respect and dignity.”
The program at UNMH uses legally obtained fetal tissue from abortions to conduct research, including the treatment of premature babies using stem cells.
Students for Life Rocky Mountain Regional Coordinator Bethany Janzen, one of the letter’s authors, said the group felt a need to “take a stand for women and ensure that they’re being treated with respect.”
Despite recent and ongoing political backlash toward such practices, officials at UNM Hospital and local abortion clinic Southwestern Women’s Options, which has been the sole provider of fetal tissue to UNM Hospital since 1995, said they provide “safe, compassionate and legal care” for their patients while conducting their research.
Tissue from fetuses — aborted between 10 and 18 weeks — is tested and researched at UNMH’s Developmental Research Education and Mentoring lab.
The DREAM lab was founded to promote new, in-depth and research-based understanding of premature babies and in turn, ensure better chances of their survival at younger gestational ages.
Robin Ohls, neonatal researcher and UNM pediatrics professor, cares for premature babies in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and heads research in the DREAM lab.
“The research that we do is called translational research,” Ohls said, “which just means that you’re asking questions and being able to answer questions — not using animal studies, but you’re using a human blood sample. That’s where the word translational comes from. It translates from doing stuff in the lab right directly to a patient with a disease.”
The letter to Abdallah critically examines the legality of research conducted at the DREAM lab. It claims that the research violated the Jonathan Spradling Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which makes it illegal for exchanges of any part of a human body — an eye or tissue of a human being, for example — for a monetary reward.
“There’s no funding mechanism, there’s no payment for any tissue,” Ohls said in response, saying that there might be misunderstanding stemming from the fact that SWWO offers monetary benefits to UNM.
“UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options have an agreement that when a woman decides to donate fetal tissue, Southwestern Women’s Options facilitates that donation,” said SWWO Spokesperson Heather Brewer. “Southwestern Women’s Options does not recoup expenses associated with tissue donation or receive any monetary or other consideration in exchange for facilitating tissue donations.”
There is no contract due to the fact that SWWO’s assistance with the fetal tissue research program is voluntary, and there is no compensation, she said.
When SWWO treats a patient who wishes to donate the tissues removed during her abortion, the clinic notifies UNMH and the DREAM lab.
“There is no contract,” Ohls said, emphasizing that SWWO has no obligation or requirement to donate.
Janzen said another top concern was lack of consent that the aborted fetuses could potentially be used for research, and in the letter alleged potential coercion that pressured women “to abort their infants to fuel the need for tissue.”
Past allegations against SWWO and UNMH stated that women receiving abortions at the clinic were not informed that their fetuses could potentially be used for research and did not consent to said practices, which Janzen said was one of her organization’s top concerns.
Ohls said that is not the case.
“It’s a consent process, and it’s always been a consent process,” Ohls said. “The process involves seeing if the mothers want to donate their tissues for research. We’re very respectful of the women who have donated the tissue, and of the tissue itself.”
When a woman makes the decision to have an abortion at SWWO, she is presented with the option of donating the removed tissues for “life-saving medical research.”
“Before a patient at Southwestern Women’s Options makes the decision to donate fetal tissue, she is fully informed about the donation process and the donation occurs only after she has given her consent,” Brewer said.
Kayla Herring, executive director of Student Alliance for Reproductive Justice, said that for women seeking an abortion “the consent is there, and it should be.”
“These women who donate aren’t victims — they’re heroes saving lives,” Herring said. “Women have power and they’re using it.”
Herring noted that those working at SWWO “put their lives on the line” for women to have autonomy.
“They don’t take that lightly,” she said, emphasizing that abortion providers know the legal and moral importance of consent.
The research Ohls spearheads can be applied to a wide range of ailments found in premature babies, including helping lung growth, preventing or curing retinal diseases and aiding in brain development.
The lab also extracts and tests from the so-called “product-of-termination” cells from the skin: eyes, brain and blood vessels of the donated tissues.
“We identify stem cells to help lungs grow so that the babies don’t end up with premature baby lung disease, which is a major thing we deal with,” she said.
Ohls said premature babies capable of benefiting from medicine derived from the DREAM lab’s research have better cognitive outcomes at ages two, four and six.
Not only does the DREAM lab produce potentially life-saving research, officials say it also strives to inspire students to pursue a career in research.
“The true focus of the lab is to involve people at all levels of training,” she said. “We want to get people interested and excited and passionate about doing research so that they can consider that as possibly a part of their career.”
Impacted by the political climate over the last 18 months, “there were political issues that were going back and forth, and they will probably continue to go back and forth,” Ohls said.
Ohls said she knows the work she does is very controversial, and will face opposition for years to come.
“This is really a sensitive topic for people, and it’s got a lot of things weighed on it now,” she said. “We just try to do the best research that we can. We want to give people in their medical training the best opportunity to understand what it is to do research.”