Dr. Ben Carson, fetal tissue research and dimwitted slander

ben carson

I don’t know much about Ben Carson except that I can’t imagine voting for him in the primaries but if he becomes the nominee it will be the first time since 2004 that I have cast a ballot for president without getting the dry heaves. As Erick notes earlier, the left has finally taken notice of him as his poll numbers climb and now they are crawling about trying to find points of attack. The one I’m writing about is his involvement in the use of fetal tissue for scientific inquiry.


The story starts at a blog run by an OB/GYN named Jen Gunter. Gunter is a radical pro-abort who would be very much at home dissecting children for Planned Parenthood. She found Carson listed as an author on a minor scientific paper called Colloid Cysts of the Third Ventricle: Immunohistochemical evidence for nonneuropithelial differentiation. (You can read the whole study here.)

She homed in on this:
carson excerpt

This is the attack:

Dr. Ben Carson, GOP nominee hopeful, told Fox’s Megyn Kelly that “There’s nothing that can’t be done without fetal tissue” and that the benefits of fetal tissue have been “over promised” and the results have “very much under-delivered.”

Carson also said, “At 17 weeks, you’ve got a nice little nose and little fingers and hands and the heart’s beating. It can respond to environmental stimulus. How can you believe that that’s just a[n] irrelevant mass of cells? That’s what they want you to believe, when in fact it is a human being.”

Dr. Carson, like everyone, is entitled to an opinion no matter how wrong, What he says doesn’t change the fact that fetal tissue  plays a vital role in medical research. For example it is being used to develop a vaccine against EbolaMany researchers depend on fetal tissue to understand and hopefully develop treatment for a myriad of conditions from blindness to HIV. Without fetal tissue neurosciences research, something essential for the development of neurosurgical techniques, would be far less developed. Dr. Carson should be intimately aware of this fact.


As it turns out, Carson, who actually understands medicine is right. Fetal tissue does not have any unique properties and the Fountain of Youth promised by embryonic stem cell research has turned out to be a line of inquiry that has produced nothing that can’t be produced using adult cells and often it has been harmful. In fact, the timeline of stem cell research shows it has produced bupkis but press releases. What Gunter has done is conflate “fetal cell research” with “use of fetal tissue to develop stuff for sale.” Because Carson used fetal tissue he is the same as those breaking apart babies and destroying embryos while looking for some kind of cure for something.

Where did the tissue come from?

The tissue was stored in the pathology lab at Johns Hopkins University. Johns Hopkins is a major research university with a teaching hospital. As Dr. Carson said in response:

“We have banked material in the pathology lab from people from every age — from day 1 of concept to 120 years told. Those specimens are available for people who want to do comparisons,” Carson said. “To not use the tissue that is in a tissue bank, regardless of where it comes from, would be foolish. Why would anybody not do that?”

That is a key point we will get back to. But there was no difference in the research Carson did for this paper that is in anyway different from using a human cadaver for anatomy training.


UPDATE: via Carson’s Facebook, apparently his contribution was brain tumors he had taken from patients with is consistent with his position as chief of neurology when then article was published.

Was the tissue derived from an induced abortion?

We simply don’t know and there is a better than average chance that the authors didn’t know. The term ‘aborted’ may mean that they were… or it may not. However, in the pre-Roe era Johns Hopkins was the leader in the nation in providing abortions both legally and illegally. It still performs abortions and trains abortionists with an assist from Planned Parenthood, so we must assume that the tissue came from induced abortions.

Even so, these abortions occurred in a hospital environment, the patients would have been properly consented, and the tissue was treated as a pathology specimen and not remarketed at a profit. All of these factors make this case different from the smokescreen Gunter is trying to throw up around Planned Parenthood.

Were babies aborted for this study?

No. We know from the description that the study involved tissue from four subjects, two of which were the babies, which was acquired over a ten year period ending in 1989. The study was submitted for publication in 1991. We don’t know the age of the fetal tissue samples but it became part of the pathology lab over a year before this study was started.

What was Dr. Carson’s role in this study?


Probably de minimus. The authors listed are all department heads so it seems very, very unlikely that they were intimately involved. By protocol, the first author is the leader on the study. It seems most likely that everyone else reviewed the data and were listed on the paper to recognize their contribution; for instance, it is pretty obvious that the head of pathology is listed because he provided the samples. Because the paper is very minor study (there was no grant funding and it has only been cited twice in other research) and it appears in a low impact journal (Impact Factor  for Human Pathology is 2.76 compare and contrast with New England Journal which has an Impact Factor of 55.87) it is unlikely that anyone other than the lead author was actively involved. No post-docs or grad students are credited so it has all the appearances of a very small scale project.

Is there a conflict between Dr. Carson’s actions and his words?

Conflict is always in the eye of the beholder. If you want to make the case that using baby parts to attempt to develop drugs or therapies is the same as using pathology specimens already on hand to compare cell differentiation, you will do so. Carson’s objection has never been to the post mortem examination of tissue but to the active collection of dead babies for the purpose of research. As he said:

“There is absolutely no contradiction between the research I worked on in 1992 and my pro-life views. The issue of fetal tissue has everything to do with how the tissue is acquired. My primary responsibility in that research was operating on people to obtain diseased tissue for comparison to banked tissue samples. Killing babies and harvesting tissue for sale is very different than taking a dead specimen and keeping a record of it, which is exactly the source of the tissue used in our research.”


There is no doubt that Dr. Carson is a man of very strong pro-life views and not a johnny-come-lately to the issue. Had he refused to participate in the study, Gunter or someone else would be calling him anti-science. This is a nothingburger. If you are pro-life you know Ben Carson. If you are not pro-life you aren’t going to vote for him anyway. If you could go either way on the subject this is not going to hurt your opinion of him.



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