by Paul Kengor | March 29, 2021

In the late 1980s, as a pre-med major at the University of Pittsburgh, I pulled many all-nighters at Scaife Hall at Pitt’s School of Medicine. My friend Dirk and I knew the only way we would ever make breakfast at the cafeterias at the Towers or Lothrop dorm-halls was by staying up all night studying and then sauntering in zombie-like at 6:00 a.m. for pancakes. Otherwise, the typical early morning fare for me and my buddies was O Fries from Oakland’s iconic Original Hot Dog Shop, washed down with cheap beer around 2:00 a.m.

I share this inspiring personal history in service of a point about (of all things) ethics.

Often during those all-nighters, whether studying for a Microbiology exam or taking my third crack at Genetics, I meandered into the stacks of medical journals. It was super-easy to get pulled away from my Genetics text. More than once I dug into a biomedical ethics journal.

I thought of those ethics when reading an alarming report about University of Pittsburgh scientists using scalps from aborted babies to create “humanized mice” for research. The aborted babies’ bodies came from Magee-Women’s Hospital (where, incidentally, I was born and where our first son was born) and the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Tissue Bank. The mothers of these aborted children had given written consent for their babies’ bodies to be used for research—though surely not in their wildest imagination (or nightmares) could these already-suffering women picture this grotesque result.

I learned of this spectacle not in a modern adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but in an article by the National Catholic Register which (in turn) linked to the original article published in the journal Nature. The Register piece was flagged by a friend (a longtime Pittsburgh philanthropist) who subject-headed her email: “Barbarism at the Univ. of Pgh.!”

The article in Nature didn’t use that kind of language. In fact, perhaps worse, the Nature article is a perverse pastiche of technical jargon without a seeming whit of concern for the moral outrage at hand, which it coldly and clinically glided ride by.

To the contrary, the National Catholic Register didn’t miss the moral elephant in the research room. It reported: “In September, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh published their work on the development of humanized mice and rats with ‘full-thickness human skin.’” This so-called “full-thickness human skin” from fetuses was grafted onto rodents “while simultaneously co-engrafting the same fetus’s lymphoid tissues and hematopoietic stem cells from the liver, so that the rodent models were humanized with organs and skin from the same child.” This coveted “full-thickness fetal skin” was taken from fetuses aborted at Magee-Women’s Hospital at 18-20 weeks of pregnancy. Human hair was evident on the mice by 12 weeks: “In the scalp grafts, fine human hair can be seen growing long and dark surrounded by the short white hairs of the mouse.”

If that doesn’t stand your hair on end, the ugly photos posted online at Nature should. Take a click. Behold, rat-human skin hybrids. It isn’t a pretty picture.

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, which very likely means your tax dollars contributed to this “research.”

I ask: Does this sorry spectacle not bother University of Pittsburgh researchers? One need not be a moral theologian to find this unsettling.

While pre-med at Pitt, and after graduation, I did research for Dr. Thomas Starzl’s organ transplant team, where (among other duties) I attended the regular “Mortality & Morbidity” meetings. At those meetings, doctors rigorously debated hot-button moral-ethical issues. Oftentimes, the issues were troubling, but they pale in comparison to this grisly display of outrageousness at Pitt right now.

This is a Brave New World being pursued at the University of Pittsburgh—and an ugly one. Worse, no one in the local press seems to be reporting on it. What’s happening there merits our attention.

Does anyone care about ethics anymore?