After Theresa Deisher received a doctorate in molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford, she worked in a lab that studied heart muscle cells. One day, representatives from a biomedical company came to her workplace to sell fetal heart tissue. Deisher asked them how and where they got the tissue. “They told me ‘miscarriages,'” Deisher says. “I was like, ‘Woo hoo!'” But later she was confronted by one of the research assistants. “‘How can you be so naive?'” Deisher remembers the assistant saying. “‘You know that’s not from miscarriages; think about it, you’re better than that.'”
She did think about it, and eventually her previous ease with a woman’s right to choose was replaced by a conviction that the fetus was a human being and that, therefore, both abortion and the use of fetal tissue for research were morally wrong. “I don’t care what someone’s opinion is on abortion or women’s reproductive rights,” she says. “I just don’t believe that people really could support a living baby harvested like that for their organs.”
She founded Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, a small nonprofit in Seattle dedicated to finding alternatives to vaccines that she describes as “manufactured in cell lines that were derived from electively aborted babies,” and she became a prominent activist in the anti-abortion and anti-vax movements. She is also credited with inspiring and educating David Daleiden, the self-proclaimed “citizen journalist” who now faces a second-degree felony charge of tampering with a government record and a misdemeanor charge of illegally offering to purchase human organs from Planned Parenthood doctors in his now infamous—and discredited—undercover video recordings.
How the stories of Theresa Deisher and David Daleiden intersected, and how her work as an anti-abortion activist aligns with her work in the anti-vax movement, reveals a great deal about the attempts by the movement opposing abortion to marshal science to support their agenda. An interview with Daleiden in the National Catholic Register characterized it this way: “Theresa Deisher helped to prepare Daleiden for his role as a biomedical representative, teaching him the ins and outs of the field.” Deisher’s company links to the National Catholic Register story on its website, and its newsletters repeatedly tout Deisher’s connection to Daleiden. “It was the work of Sound Choice that brought the human exploitation of biomedical research to the attention of The Center for Medical Progress,” the December newsletter states. Children of God for Life, an anti-vaxxer organization that warns against “aborted fetal vaccines” like Gardasil, has been cheering on Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress from social media. Not long after the videos went viral, the group posted a link on its Facebook page to Daleiden’s interview with the National Catholic Register: “God bless Dr. Deisher for her help in exposing Planned Parenthood!” The group’s website identifies Sound Choice as one of its partners, and in January it posted a petition to clear Daleiden of his pending charges.
In the past, anti-abortion organizations focused on moral arguments to justify their position. But scientific research, much of it discredited, has been increasingly used to legitimize their opposition. For example, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG)—a counterpart to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)—maintains through “international studies” and some marginal scientific research that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer. (The National Cancer Institute has since disputed this claim.) Another popular anti-abortion position that has come up in subsequent congressional hearings regarding Daleiden’s videos is that fetuses developed past 20 weeks are “pain capable.” The medical consensus is that the fetus must be nearly full-term before the systems necessary to sense pain are developed enough.
In an interview with The Church Boys podcast, Deisher explained that although she was not involved with shooting or editing any videos for the Center for Medical Progress, she had spoken to Daleiden regularly over the years and advised him in his research. “Just to make [the Center for Medical Progress] aware of how the material was being described, how the harvest was being described, and, most importantly, my suspicions that some of these babies were alive when they were being harvested,” she said.
Deisher and Daleiden’s relationship began about four years ago, when Daleiden called her asking for some help. Deisher said Daleiden had not been aware of “the day-to-day pervasive way” fetal tissue is used in biomedical research before he encountered her work—she can’t recall whether he’d heard her speak or had read one of her papers—and he wanted to know more. Together, they pored over articles in scientific publications, and Deisher explained the terminology. “What I did was translate science to him,” she said. “In many publications, it was very clear that especially the heart and brain research—where the stated optimal gestational age is 22 to 24 weeks for the best material, and those are times when babies are viable outside of the womb—it was very clear that some of these babies might have been alive when they were harvested.”
Viability has been a hotly debated subject since 1973, when the Supreme Court essentially legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. One of the central points of the ruling concerned the “viability” of the fetus, arguing that state governments cannot prioritize the interests of a fetus over the interests of a pregnant woman until a time at which the fetus could survive outside the womb. Put simply, this has been interpreted as meaning that as long as a fetus could not exist outside its mother’s womb, it was basically not an individual person, and abortion remained a woman’s choice up until that imprecise point.
Since that time, medical technology, access to health care, and subsequent Supreme Court decisions about abortion have complicated the question of viability. A study published last year by the New England Journal of Medicine found that a very small number of 22-week-old babies could survive outside the womb, but it’s impossible to prescribe a blanket term of viability to a gestational age because survival depends on an array of factors. Researchers at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, or ANSIRH, say viability can only be determined when taking into account the health of the pregnant woman and her fetus. Determining factors include “chromosomal abnormalities, the sex of the fetus, the conditions of a woman’s health, and the availability of sophisticated neonatology care.”
Deisher says her ideology is backed by science that works with her Catholic faith rather than against it. She takes issue with the use of fetal material for any scientific work on a moral basis, but scientifically the heart of her argument against vaccines is this: “When we use an animal- or a plant-based system to manufacture vaccines, there are animal- or plant-based contaminants that will be in the final product, and we mount an immune response to them and eliminate them from our body. In the case of the human fetal cell lines, those contaminants are human, and they could trigger an autoimmune attack, or what is called insertional mutagenesis.” Her nonprofit’s website has pages dedicated to the theories that vaccines cause autism and the use of fetal stem cells can cause cancerous tumors.
Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says autoimmune theory is not plausible. “It’s like throwing a pingpong ball off the top of the Empire State Building and hoping that it lands in one of 7 billion little fishbowls.” In this analogy, the genetic material in vaccines represents Offit’s “pingpong ball,” and the “little fishbowls” are the cells in our bodies that are protected by cellular membranes, which would have to be penetrated by the DNA. Additionally, the DNA in the vaccine would have to do so without damaging the cell membrane to effectively contaminate it the way Deisher claims. Vaccines do contain some genetic material from the fetal cell lines they were derived from decades ago, but the amount is incredibly tiny— nanograms, which are roughly one-billionth of a gram. The material is highly fragmented to boot, and for genetic material to make its way into a cell, it would require an extraordinary chemical process. Offit notes that if what Deisher claims were actually true,
Deisher disagrees with the previous Mother Jones article that reported the hindrance of life-saving research involving fetal tissue as a side effect of Daleiden’s videos. “It’s not true that there is no substitute for fetal tissue,” she says. “We have a very nice technology now called induced pluripotent cells that more effectively model what a postnatal heart cell does.”
Tim Kamp, the co-director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, said it’s impossible to make pluripotent cells (also known as iPS cells) develop in a petri dish the way humans develop in utero—for that, and for the research on heart disease pioneered by his colleague Gail Robertson, they need fetal tissue. “There are aspects of developmental biology that can’t be done using iPS cells,” Kamp said. “There are different tools used for different research. You want to have access to all the different tools you can, but taking fetal tissue off the table will slow progress. It’s pretty straightforward.”
Deisher’s overall goal—to find alternative vaccines that weren’t developed using fetal cell lines—is not an impossibility. But Offit says it’s complicated, and the process of developing a new vaccine, putting it through clinical trials, and obtaining all the proper licensing along the way could amount to “hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” in costs. “In the world of things we need to worry about and prevent, this is not one of them,” Offit said. “It’s more a perceptual problem than a physical problem; there’s nothing unsafe about that vaccine.”
Deisher believes the claims put forth by Daleiden’s videos—that Planned Parenthood has been “harvesting” fetal tissue to sell for profit. Twenty states so far have either cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing or decided to not investigate, and five congressional committees have also failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing. Still, Deisher maintains that the videos from the Center for Medical Progress reveal a dark truth. “A picture says a thousand words,” Deisher said. “As a scientist, I can talk clinically ’til I’m blue in the face. When people see the pictures—it doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not—I think it really cuts to people’s hearts.”
The Planned Parenthood sting videos have had an undeniable effect on both the abortion debate and the questions around vaccines. As I previously reported for Mother Jones, the political controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood has undermined medical research and poses a potential threat to the safety of scientists. Further exacerbating this effect is a GOP-led House committee that recently issued subpoenas to eight medical institutions, demanding the names of researchers, students, and doctors. Democrats are calling this effort a “witch hunt;” committee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) insists the group is simply trying to “get the complete picture,” as she told the New York Times. Five states have banned research on fetal tissue—Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Arizona bans the transfer of fetal tissue for research, and Florida bans the “purchase, sale, or transfer of fetal remains.”
For Deisher, her faith continues to be the final word when it comes to the debate surrounding Planned Parenthood. “You know, we get so caught up in pro-choice or pro-life, and if we throw the politics aside and really think about it, wouldn’t we all like a world where a woman didn’t have to make that choice?” she says. ” I think most people would; I think we’re all pro-life.”