The letter last fall from an antiabortion group posed an unexpected quandary for Georgetown University Medical Center.
A Florida-based group wrote to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington that some scientists at Georgetown, a Catholic university, were doing research using cells derived from aborted fetuses.
An in-house investigation verified the claim. But when 14 of the researchers involved said that ending the use of the cells in question would jeopardize years of work and funding, the matter was turned over to ethicists. In a recommendation that scholars said could mark a first in Catholic medical research in the United States, Georgetown has decided to let those researchers continue their work.
The Rev. Kevin T. FitzGerald, a university bioethicist, said he reasoned that the scientists did not know the cells had come from aborted fetuses when they began their work and should not be forced to abandon potentially lifesaving studies or risk forfeiting grants. The benefits to society, he said, far outweigh the harm done by using the cells, because the abortions were not performed for the purpose of providing the cells to scientists.
"The ideal would be not to be involved with [aborted fetal cells] at all," said FitzGerald, a Jesuit priest who holds a doctorate in molecular genetics. "Obviously, we don't live in an ideal world. We do the best we can."
Four other Georgetown researchers agreed to switch to other cell lines after determining they could do so without compromising their work. The medical center has removed the controversial frozen cell lines from its central repository on campus.
But those moves do not preclude a Georgetown researcher from using aborted fetal cells in the future if there are no alternatives. FitzGerald said each instance would have to be judged.