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Catholic and antiabortion, he needs fetal tissue operation

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Albert Brooks is staunchly antiabortion. He opposes abortion for any reason. Yet Brooks, a Catholic, is hoping that tissue from aborted 8- to 10-week-old fetuses will save his life.

Brooks, 57, of Centerview, Mo., has Huntington's disease, a fatal degenerative brain disorder. He is losing control over the movement of his body and is slowly being robbed of his intellect.

Physicians offer Brooks little hope. There has been no cure for this fatal disorder or even any treatment to slow its progression. But earlier this year, researchers at a Los Angeles hospital reported they had transplanted tissue from human fetuses into the brains of several Huntington's patients with incredible results.

Patients quickly regained the ability to walk unassisted and to speak intelligibly and they have maintained that improvement, researchers said.

Brooks will have the experimental surgery in mid-November, as soon as fetal tissue is available, according to his son Steve of Kansas City, Mo.

Huntington's disease usually strikes in midlife, between the ages of 30 and 45. Early symptoms include depression, emotional outbursts, fidgeting or clumsiness. As it progresses, sufferers become confused and forgetful. They lose control of their body. Walking becomes difficult. Their arms and legs move ceaselessly. Treatment has been limited to drugs that relieve symptoms.

Friends have been helping to raise the $50,000 cost. Steve Brooks said about $16,000 has come in from donors, and an equity loan on his father's house would pay the rest.

Albert Brooks, a member of Catholics for Justice, an organization devoted to promoting peace and justice in society, doesn't see a contradiction between his faith and antiabortion stance and medical research that depends on abortions. Brooks said he would not wish any woman to have an abortion. But, he reasons, if an abortion occurs, why waste human tissue that can benefit others?

Steve Brooks said his father had long opposed abortion "as a personal belief" but had never participated in marches or rallies. He said his father's belief had not changed.

In a voice made slow and halting by his illness, Albert Brooks said, "I certainly do not believe the abortion issue is relevant to this particular operation. I look at this on the same basis as a heart transplant or liver transplant. It's making tissue available from other donors."

Still, experimentation with human fetal tissue, typically obtained from abortions, has become a significant factor in the nation's acrimonious abortion debate.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, calls research that uses tissue from aborted fetuses exploitation of human victims.

"To the degree that society depends on unborn human beings for spare parts, abortion is more firmly entrenched and respect for human life is eroded," he said.

Johnson said scientists should limit their research to fetuses obtained from pregnancies that end unintentionally, with miscarriages, for example.

The Reagan and Bush administrations prohibited federal funding of human fetal tissue research that involved transplants. As one of his first official acts, President Clinton rescinded the ban.

Since then, the National Institutes of Health has awarded millions of dollars in grants to study fetal tissue transplants as a treatment for Parkinson's disease. These transplants already have shown promise.

Albert Brooks reasons that medical use of fetal tissue isn't going to promote abortion. Physicians don't approach women to donate fetal tissue until after they have had an abortion, so the possibility of a transplant never influences their decision.

Brooks, a former budget officer for the Federal Aviation Administration in Kansas City, Mo., has been dealing with the question for a couple of years. In his job, he distributed $100 million each year, but he noticed a few years ago that his mind was beginning to lose its edge. "I knew I was having memory loss problems," Brooks said. "They were substantial. And I couldn't ... do even routine mathematics."

Brooks went to a doctor for a physical examination in September 1994. The physician noticed Brooks' right arm was trembling. That led to months of tests. In December of that year, Brooks received the diagnosis.

Brooks' diagnosis stunned his family. People with Huntington's have a 50 percent chance of passing it to their children.

"We went about researching like crazy. We hit the libraries," said Steve, 29. He said he sought genetic testing immediately. He needed to know not just for himself, but for his 3-1/2-year-old son, Alexander. Steve came up negative.

"At first I felt elation, mostly for my child," Steve said. "Then guilt set in," he said, because he could not help his father.

About 30,000 people in the United States have Huntington's disease. Another 150,000 have a parent with the disease, which puts them at risk of developing the disorder.

So far, researchers at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles have given transplants to six Huntington's disease patients.

Pieces of fetal brain tissue, each about one cubic millimeter, are implanted into portions of the basal ganglia. This region of the brain, which is responsible for coordinating muscle activity, is damaged by the disease.

"The effects have been almost immediate, in hours or days," said Deane B. Jacques, one of the Good Samaritan researchers. "You rewire the brain with these transplants. That tissue grows and re-establishes electrical connections and makes hormones."

Brooks has the unreserved support of his longtime friend, Calvin Fields, a retired Church of Christ minister from Easton, Kan. Fields described himself as "very much an antiabortion advocate, a fundamentalist minister." But he said he saw no conflict in using fetal tissue for lifesaving purposes.

"The basic reason I'm antiabortion is I'm pro-life," he said. "If you're pro-life, how could you object to giving the infant tissue for someone's life?"

Opposing this use of fetal tissue because the fetus was obtained by abortion would be a dogmatic position, Fields said. "I'm scared to death by absolutists. They are so focused. But life is not that simple."

Todd Brooks, Steve's brother, agrees.

"We have an opportunity right now to take what I think a lot of people are seeing as medical waste and do something good with it. We have a chance to save our father's life and at the same time bring a lot of attention to Huntington's disease and help others that have it. I do not believe this is promoting abortion."

Myra Christopher, president of the Midwest Bioethics Center in Kansas City, described Brooks' situation as "the classic ethical dilemma."

"I'm surprised he raised the issue, but frankly I respect him for it," she said. "I would not presume to pass judgment on him."

Alan Bavley is the medical writer for the Kansas City Star. A version of this story appeared in the Star on Sept. 7.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996