By Martin Hutchinson
BBC News Online health staff in Madrid
An aborted foetus could one day become the mother of a new baby by "donating" her eggs to an infertile woman, say researchers.
Eggs can be harvested for future use
The highly controversial idea has been suggested as one solution to a worldwide shortage of women prepared to donate their eggs to help other women become pregnant.
It moved a little closer to reality on Monday with the unveiling of research from Israel and the Netherlands which found that the ovarian tissues taken from second and third trimester foetuses could be kept alive in the laboratory for weeks.
The ovarian follicles from the foetus - which would eventually mature to release eggs in a fully-grown woman - even developed slightly from their "primordial" state when placed in special culture chemicals.
However, many scientific advances have to be made before it becomes technically possible to produce a viable egg which could be used in IVF.
The lead researcher, Dr Tal Biron-Shental, from Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, Israel, conceded that the concept of taking egg follicles from an aborted baby was controversial.
Presenting the work to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Madrid, she said: "I'm fully aware of the controversy about this - but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable.
"There is a shortage of donated oocytes (eggs) for IVF - oocytes from aborted foetuses might provide a new source for these.
"There are a huge amount of follicles in the foetal ovary."
Her study, carried out in collaboration with Utrecht University in the Netherlands, involved seven foetuses which had been aborted later than usual in pregnancy because abnormalities were discovered.
Ovarian tissue samples, containing large numbers of follicles, were taken, and placed in a culture of growth-promoting chemicals in the laboratory.
After four weeks, chemical tests suggested that not only were many of the follicles still alive, but that some had begun developing into a more mature state - raising the possibility that one day, one could be persuaded to produce an egg that would be suitable for IVF.
Dr Biron-Shental said that while the follicles were "healthy and viable" at this stage, improvements would be needed in the chemicals used to culture them to progress much further.
Nuala Scarisbrick, from the charity Life, said she found the idea of harvesting follicles from aborted foetuses as "utterly grotesque".
"Just because there may be a demand for this from desperate people doesn't make it right.
"I imagine that most normal people would be revulsed by the idea of this - but nothing is impossible these days, and, at the speed that science moves, I imagine this will be possible soon.
"Who would want to know that their mother was an aborted baby?"
Professor Roger Gosden, director of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in the US, told BBC News Online that there were a number of question marks, ethical and practical, over the use of foetal follicles to help people become pregnant.
However, he said that the research itself was worthwhile, because it might help doctors learn more about the process, even if it never led to foetal eggs being used in IVF.
He said: "Surely it's better to do some good with tissue than no good?"
Professor Gosden said eggs retrieved from ovarian tissue itself might prove a better alternative to foetal eggs in the long run.
"I do have a problem if the research is extended to using foetal ovarian tissue for treatment of patients."
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates IVF in the UK, said that it would never be allowed to happen here.
A spokesman said: "The use of foetal ovarian tissue raises difficult social, medical scientific and legal questions.
"After a public consultation, we decided that it would be difficult for any child to come to terms with being created using aborted foetal material because of prevailing social attitudes.
"We do not consider the use of tissue from this source to be acceptable for fertility treatment."
Read a selection of your comments.
This is quite frankly one of the most deeply disturbing things that the study of human biology has produced. This has to be stopped in its tracks before it goes any further. The whole idea is grotesque, immoral and wrong.
Helen Inglis, UK
While I do see the benefit of harvesting stem cells from embryos, the idea of harvesting eggs from an aborted foetus is totally unjustified.
Abortion is a tragic event regardless of the circumstances. This is especially so at the stage of gestation noted in your article. To then harvest eggs from the dead foetus to enable a woman who presumably has the funds to pay for treatment of her infertility is disgusting.
It would be far better if the foetus was allowed to live and be adopted by the supposedly long line of hopeful parents.
It's a waste of ova to not use these and since there's a shortage, it may be useful.
Joseph Sanderson, UK
I find this to be totally barbaric but I'm not suprised considering our view of the foetus' human rights to this point.
Who said abortion wouldn't lead us down this slippery slope? They were wrong.
Steven Keever, United States
While I believe every woman has a right to try and bear children and every woman has a right to chose abortion, I find the idea of harvesting eggs from an aborted foetus to be absolutely repulsive. I think this is taking science to a whole other "Frankenstein" level. There needs to come a point where nature is allowed to take a natural course in reproduction.
Tuesday Tamburri, USA
Let's not forget that not long ago, the idea of a heart transplant was considered grotesque by many, and that IVF was called blasphemous at its introduction.
Essentially the same as harvesting stem-cells, this is merely a different facet of the same abomination.
Leonard Porrello, USA
It seems that most participants in this (often hysterical) debate are concentrating so hard on establishing their ethical credentials that they ignore an important question: how would gestation from an aborted foetus' oocyte impact culturally and emotionally on the resulting individual?
We establish our identity relative to a set of cultural norms, of which accepted morality forms a part. An individual conceived using the technology which could putatively arise from this research would, through the involuntary act of being born, violate many of these accepted norms.
Surely it is our humanitarian duty to consider this problem with at least as much energy as other, more rarified issues.
Richard Parker, New Zealand
A simpler solution would be for people to adopt the foetus as their own rather than "harvest" eggs from it for another pregnancy.
Anthony Di Russo, USA
The next step would be to have a woman impregnated
with a disposable third trimester child, abort the child
and get the advantage of who knows how many eggs
for sale - all for the price of one pregnancy.
madness needs to be stopped before it gets started.
We are still human and hopefully will remain so, in spite of mad scientists who would play with humanity
as they do with crops and mathematics.
I find it odd to think of trying to "do some good" with aborted tissue, as if this was a redemptive step.
Having friends and family who have been adopted, and knowing friends in my generation who have chosen to adopt, I am thankful that this way was sought and welcomed by their parents.
Believing that the dignity and value of a human life is beyond measuring, I can¿t think it is our prerogative to seek 'progress' that makes use of another victim.
Why should harvesting eggs from an aborted foetus disturb those who support abortion? I think it is completely consistent with the pro-choice view. According to pro-choicers, unborn babies are not human beings and therefore there is nothing morally wrong with their mother choosing to terminate them. What then can be morally wrong with harvesting their eggs? If the unborn are not human beings, then we should be able to do anything we want with them.
Only the pro-lifer has a moral foundation for raising objections. The pro-lifer correctly recognizes that the unborn are indeed real human beings, and therefore it is morally wrong for anyone to abort them, much less harvest their eggs.
So the foetus is not human but has the ability to reproduce other humans? What, then, is it?
To relegate the foetus to the role of baby production without acknowledging its humanity is wrong.
Sven Haalgrod, Canada
This is one of the sickest things I've ever heard of. If these women are so desperate for a child, how about having them adopt the baby who is being aborted and saving a life?
There may be a shortage of eggs, but there is no shortage of babies who need loving homes. This is another example of people who think that money can buy anything, including a full womb.
Debbie Anderson, USA
This is a completely disgusting idea, never mind being a remotely acceptable way of becoming a parent. If there are so many people waiting to become parents, why are there so many children in need of adoption? Why aren't there more people befriending women who unexpectedly become pregnant?
It saddens and sickens me to continually read about ideas like this in the media. The lack of respect for these individuals (the unwanted babies) amazes me.
They are human beings from the moment they are concieved as far as I am concerned and nothing should be taken from their tiny bodies at all. It's bad enough that they were aborted in the first place.
Joanne Douglas, From UK - Living in USA