That’s right. The lunatic fringe rumour mill is running again.
Some of you may have already seen the recent posts floating around the social media sphere, claiming that we’re all eating baby fetuses! But are we really?
The simple answer: No. (But surely you realised that?)
We technically never were, unless you count cell lines, but we’ll get to that. First of all, how could such an awful rumour even start?
In April, an article emerged suggesting that certain companies’ products were “manufactured using the tissue of aborted human babies”. The article was picked up by other organisations and suddenly everyone was talking about eating fetuses. However, this isn’t the first time this rumour had done the rounds.
Reports first emerged in 2011 saying major food and beverage companies (in America) were using aborted fetuses in their products as added flavouring. Some basic journalistic research showed that story had its roots in work conducted in a 1970s Dutch medical laboratory where cells from a legally aborted human fetus were selectively processed and altered with snippets of other genetic material to generate a stable line of easily reproduced cells for use in research of cell structure and behaviour.
The Human Embryonic Kidney 293 cells (HEK 293) was the product of the 293rd in a series of experimental adaptations performed by researchers in a Leiden University laboratory. HEK 293 is very easy to work with and therefore proved very useful for cellular biology and genetic research around the world, as well as the development of drugs and vaccines.
Then in about 2000, an American biotech company, Senomyx, isolated receptors found on cells that detect taste, and added them to HEK 293 to create, effectively, a synthetic human palate. That allowed it to assess the value of thousands of potential new flavour additives for the food and beverage industries testing for sweet and savoury characteristics at a speed impossible with human taste testers.
At no point, apart from that very first extraction of human cell tissue in 1973, has new fetal tissue been used. Since the new cell line was first synthesised it has undergone division and regrowth possibly billions of times. There is by now no trace of the original cell beyond a fragmented genetic memory. Use of the line has not led to more abortions, nor is there any way you would ever consume the cells themselves, nor can they in any way make you ill. They are confined to laboratories and are simply used to assess and study other cells and chemicals.
However, as they say “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on”, and this rumour certainly didn’t stop to catch its breath.
But the suggestion that mutated fetal cells could get anywhere near the food chain attracted the attention of certain people and groups, what some people might describe as the lunatic fringe. One of the first to fall for it was Oklahoma State Republican Senator Ralph Shortey, who in 2012 introduced a bill to ban the use of human embryonic tissue in the production or research of food. He proposed that:
“No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.”
Shortey was mocked for his proposal as there were already ample laws in place that ruled out such abuse of human tissue in less histrionic fashion.
But Shortey certainly wasn’t the only one to react so dramatically to the rumour.
Snopes, an urban-myth-busting website, reports that Debi Vinnedge, executive director for Children of God for Life, a pro-life watchdog group, considered the use of HEK 293 “unethical because it indirectly creates a market for aborted fetuses and encourages scientists to hunt for new embryonic cell lines”. She argued that Senomyx could use other, non-fetus based cell lines, such as those from animals.
However, it the ethical issues involved did not seem to be her only problem. In an interview it turned out that her primary reason for opposing the research, despite the fact that the original cell never was and never will be anywhere near our food, was squeamishness. “It’s the eeew factor. It strikes a really strong reaction in people,” she said.
Is that really a reason to boycott a company? So what next? We should ban all meat and poultry farming because animals are slaughtered?
Rest assured your food and drink are fetus free. Now go enjoy a refreshing cold drink! – Isabel Williams
Top photo from Nathan Rupert’s Flickr photostream.