In recent weeks, antiabortion activists have leaked videos shot undercover at Planned Parenthood clinics in which staff members discuss providing fetal tissue for use in medical research. The videos are edited to suggest that the practice is sinister and that Planned Parenthood may be profiting from it, which would be illegal.
Fetal-tissue research is legal under specific circumstances–Planned Parenthood has said repeatedly it has not violated the law–and has been done for decades at nearly every leading hospital and medical institution. Still, the backlash has been swift, with some Republican leaders saying the group should be defunded and fetal research banned. But this logic confuses the politics of abortion with the scientific merits of fetal-tissue research. And the latter is indisputable.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health funded $76 million worth of research that uses fetal tissue in 2014, and for good reason. Over the decades, this kind of research has contributed to lifesaving vaccines for polio, rubella and chicken pox as well as advances in stem-cell research that could lead to treatments for degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
Historically, these achievements have been overshadowed by the primary source of fetal tissue: elective abortions. But opposition to abortion and support for fetal-tissue research don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Debra Mathews, a professor of bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, invokes a comparison to organ donation. People aren’t generally in favor of car accidents or shootings. “But if tragedies happen,” she says, “being able to have something good come out of that is seen largely as a good thing.”
Park, a TIME staff writer, is the author of Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives
This appears in the August 17, 2015 issue of TIME.