When the Suffolk County district attorney's office indicted two Harvard researchers April 11 for illegal fetal experimentation, it cited an 1837 statute aimed at 19th Century grave robbers. In this way, the D.A. forced the abortion issue into the open in Boston, and while the controversy raged, doctors throughout the medical area began to fear for their experiments.
A year ago this month, Dr. Leon D. Sabath '52, associate professor of Medicine, collaborated with Dr. Agneta Phillipson and Dr. David Charles in publishing a study of possible substitutes for penicillin in The New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Leonard D. Berman, assistant professor of Pathology, also worked on the experiments but was not an author of the paper.
Penicillin sometimes produces adverse effects on fetuses when administered to diseased pregnant women. The doctors were analyzing the effect of two substitute drugs by administering them to pregnant women who had agreed to undergo therapeutic abortions. The researchers then cultured the tissue from the aborted fetuses to determine how much of the drug had been transmitted from the pregnant women across the placenta.
There was nothing unusual about the technique; experimenters explain that taking a culture from dead fetal tissue is a standard procedure. Twenty years before, Thomas H. Weller, Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health, and John F. Enders, University Professor Emeritus, earned a Nobel Prize for their efforts to isolate the polio virus, employing a similar technique.
But for some reason, publication of the Sabath-Berman paper prompted an investigation of the case early this year, and the D.A. emerged with indictments in April.
Charles, Phillipson, Berman and Sabath were all charged with "illegal dissection." During the investigation, lawmen also turned up what they saw as incriminating evidence against another doctor, Kenneth Edelin, the chief resident obstetrician at Boston City Hospital, where the allegedly illegal experiment was performed.
Edelin was linked with the separate death of a 24-week-old fetus in the fall of 1973 and was charged with "manslaughter."
To researchers, the most ominous aspect of the case, is the vagueness of the "illegal dissection" charge. What grave-robbing has to do with an experiment on fetal tissue is unclear.
Neil L. Chayet '57, attorney for Charles, says the statute forbids "unlawful conveyance of a dead body." This aspect of the case calls to question just whan a fetus becomes a baby, and the Supreme Court's distinction between over-six-months and under-six-months is apt to become a sore point of contention.
In the meantime, Chayet says he may join the other defending lawyers in a motion for specification, to clear up just what the clients are supposed to have done wrong.
But supporters of the indicted say that the court succeeded in what they feel was its prime objective--to politicize and arrest the progress advocates of legalized abortion have made in Boston.
For instance, in mid-April Boston City Hospital suspended all the accused doctors. Two weeks later, the free abortion program at the Roxbury-based hospital stopped, professedly because of a lack of funds. Detractors claimed that City Hospital was leery of the ballooning controversy surrounding abortions. The Department of Health and Hospitals at City Hospital renewed the program in May--and reinstated the doctors a week after they were suspended.
As for fetal research, sources in the Harvard medical area say it quickly came to a halt following the indictments.
Governor Francis W. Sargent is now considering a state bill to limit research to those fetuses obtained from spontaneous abortions. Opponents and backers of this proposal both staged demonstrations while it was in the legislature.
The air is so thick, in fact, with anti-abortion sentiment, that Sabath says colleagues are afraid to come to his defense.
"Some senior physicians at several different Boston hospitals have been unwilling to make statements for fear of reprisal," Sabath said.
However, Dr. Howard H. Hiatt '46, Dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. David G. Nathan '51, associate professor of Pediatrics, and Professor Weller made statements last week urging a Sargent veto of the state bill.
The original indictments have already attracted national attention, and a trial this summer might only provide the focus for more general abortion debate.