Aborted fetuses the likely source of stem cells
Research projects using embryonic and fetal stem cells are ethically controversial in the West and have generated plenty of public debate, but in China there is little discussion and public opinion seems to be largely positive.
The country's particular situations, however, further complicates the picture. Most mainland stem-cell researchers will not say publicly where the fetal tissue they used for study or treatment comes from. A close reading of mainland journals however, show that many cells used for the research are coming from induced abortions. The cells harvested from fetuses range in age from five weeks to six months.
The mainland's draconian population 'one child' policy has ensured, although unintentionally, that the supply would be limitless.
Many Chinese mothers-to-be are forced to terminate their pregnancies, regardless of the stage at which they are, under this policy. Authorities exert pressure to abort by imposing heavy fines on would-be parents, dismissing them from jobs, and refusing residency permits and social protections such as education and medical services for the children.
After the abortion, the hospital often sells the fetal tissue to other hospitals or laboratories for stem-cell research or treatment, without the mother's knowledge.
'Generally, surgeons in the mainland are very likely to use aborted fetuses in medical experiments and treatments without informing the mother-to-be,' Liu said, 'while many mothers-to-be are also not aware of their rights on aborted fetuses, and some surgeons may take advantage of this.'
An Yimeng, director of the stem-cell transplant department at Beijing's General Hospital of the Chinese People's Armed Police Forces, told People's Daily that mainland hospitals had been using fetal brains to treat patients since the 1980s, and a huge number of patients received similar treatments during the past three decades.
An's hospital alone has treated nearly 4,000 patients with its neural stem cells since 2003, including foreign patients from 20 countries.
In Shenzhen, a public hospital obstetrician said that in most cases, a mother-to-be will leave the aborted fetus or stillbirth baby to the hospital as medical residue. The fetuses will be sold. And so will the placentas, to pharmaceutical factories or individuals who believe them rich in nutrients and suitable to eat.
The country's lax system of ethical and regulatory oversight and respect to privacy enable doctors to remove fetal cells and tissues without informing the mothers.
Ding Yu, who specialises in women's rights and is a researcher from the School of Sociology and Anthropology at Sun Yat-Sen University, said: 'Very few Chinese have ethical concern over abortion after three decades of the 'one-child policy' and forced abortions. Most of them take abortion as common phenomena and never link this with human rights or a fetus' right to life.'
On the mainland, fetal stem cells and tissue from abortion clinics have become a steady source for mainland hospitals in treating patients for various diseases as early as 2000, as well as stem-cell laboratories for research.
Mainland media revealed that a Liaoning woman who chose a sex- selective abortion in Xian in June last year discovered that her six-month-old fetus was sold to a local medical company called Shaanxi Alerfu Activ Tissue Engineering Co, which focuses on producing artificial skin and cornea. Three maternity assistants who sold the fetus soon after the abortion were fired by the hospital after a police investigation.
There are growing concerns on the mainland, though. Liu Hongbo, a noted newspaper columnist based in Wuhan, said an unborn child arguably had as much right to live as the terminally ill child who used its cells. But Chinese legislators only regard babies, not fetuses, as human.
'Chinese authorities believe fetuses are just a possibility of life, and abortion is legal and well accepted by the public,' Liu said.
But neurologist Ben Barres, chair of the neurobiology department at Stanford University School of Medicine, said he saw nothing wrong with using cells or tissue from a fetus that was being discarded in any case.
'Personally,' Barres said, 'I don't think there is an ethical problem with using tissue from aborted fetuses [tissue that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage] to help patients.'
The number of stem-cell papers published in international peer-reviewed journals in 2008 from China, ranking it fifth in the world