Dr. Oz says he's '100% pro-life,' But past research could upset his anti-abortion voters
GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has insisted to Pennsylvania voters that he believes life begins at conception, seeking to quell skepticism about his devotion to anti-abortion causes.
But during his medical career, the cardiothoracic surgeon has also conducted research using fetal tissue — a study method that's taboo or at least questionable to many of the “pro-life” voters he’s trying to win over.
Oz and 10 other scientists ran experiments using liver cells from fetuses at 14 to 16 weeks of gestation, according to the 2000 journal article summarizing their findings. Though the paper doesn’t explain how the group acquired the fetal tissue, experts say the vast majority of researchers procure it directly or indirectly from abortion providers.
The GOP candidate's campaign did not respond to questions about the research.
How do anti-abortion voters feel about Dr. Oz's previous research?
Oz, who's facing Democrat John Fetterman in the race for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat, has striven during his campaign to gain credibility as a staunch anti-abortion advocate and lay to rest questions about past statements suggesting he opposed highly restrictive laws against the procedure.
While he’s expressed a nuanced position on abortion in the past, he adopted harder-edged rhetoric during the primary, arguing during a May campaign event that the procedure is “murder” at any stage of a pregnancy. Oz has also said he is “100% pro-life” and believes life begins at the moment of conception.
But some people who share the views he now espouses also reject research on tissue from aborted fetuses.
While scientists point to major medical advances made possible by this work, anti-abortion advocates argue that no good can come out of terminating a pregnancy. They also raise concerns that family planning clinics are making money from the sale of fetal remains to researchers — even though this type of profiteering is federally illegal.
"We believe that human beings, no matter what their age, no matter what their stage of development, should not be reduced to a commodity whose body parts can be bought or sold or traded for experimentation," said Bonnie Finnerty, education director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.
Finnerty declined to comment on Oz's study, since she hadn't seen it herself and wasn't aware of the particulars. However, no scientific advancement can justify the use of tissue samples from a terminated pregnancy, she said.
"Preborn children have dignity," Finnerty said. "They're more than a research project. They're more than someone else's cure. They actually have a right to life and should be protected."
Weill Cornell Medicine, whose researchers collaborated with Oz and others on the 2000 study, said one of its scientists was not available for an interview about the journal article. They did not respond to questions about where researchers obtained the samples.
However, the institution said in a prepared statement that Oz was not the primary researcher for the study, which sought to learn more about a specific cell type and its possible relationship to endothelial cell growth — "either in support of wound healing or tumor development." Endothelial cells line the body's blood vessels.
To Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscience professor who has performed fetal tissue research at the University of California, San Diego, said there's no inconsistency between Oz's "pro-life" stance and his past use of fetal samples. Researchers study samples from pregnancies that would've ended regardless of whether the fetal tissue was donated to science, he noted.
"[Oz] has clearly endorsed the use of fetal tissue in research by his own involvement, but he can still oppose abortion," Goldstein said. "I don't find those to be antagonistic ideas."
Why do people oppose this research?
Although federal laws prohibit researchers from having any involvement in a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy, Finnerty argues that using aborted tissue for scientific experimentation is still problematic because it violates a fetus' human dignity.
Controversy over the research method flared up in 2015, when anti-abortion activists released undercover videos they said showed Planned Parenthood representatives breaking the law by trying to sell fetal organs for a profit.
Footage of the blunt, sometimes graphic conversations stirred outrage and led to calls for government restrictions on fetal tissue research and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
A subsequent review found the videos had been edited before release, and investigations in multiple states found no evidence that Planned Parenthood had violated the law. A jury ended up awarding Planned Parenthood more than $2 million in damages after finding the anti-abortion activists had trespassed and committed fraud in recording the videos.
Cynthia Daniels, a Rutgers University professor who studies reproductive politics, said in this case and others, the anti-abortion movement has tried to use fetal research "as a vehicle" to portray abortion providers as profit-driven groups that mislead patients about pregnancy development and about how a tissue donation might be used.
"It helps to promote these false statements about the unethical nature of abortion providers and the services they provide," she said.
The legal findings against the undercover activists who filmed Planned Parenthood didn’t eliminate objections to the research method, and former President Donald Trump in 2019 prohibited government scientists from studying samples derived from abortions and issued several other restrictions on the practice. The Biden administration rolled back some of those changes several years later.
And just this year in Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to block funding for universities that engage in research on tissue samples obtained from elective abortions. The move was aimed at the University of Pittsburgh, where scientists study such samples “to better understand the efficacy and safety of certain treatments for HIV, AIDS and cancer.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Jerry Knowles, who led this year's charge against fetal tissue research from abortions, said while he wasn't aware of Oz's study and didn't want to comment specifically on it, he would "have questions and concerns about any unethical behavior, any barbaric behavior."
The Schuylkill Republican said he's not opposed to studying tissue donated after a miscarriage. But he expressed outrage at the idea of using samples that came from an abortion.
"They'll call it fetal tissue, an embryo," he said. "They have all these words that they like to use, but the truth of the matter is, it's an unborn baby."
Language like this, asserting fetal personhood, reflects a second reason that conservative activists have wrapped tissue research into their fight against abortion, Daniels said. The goal, she said, is to "promote the argument that the unborn child is a fully formed human being and therefore should not be terminated or have loss of life for any reason, under any circumstance."
What are the rules for fetal tissue research?
Goldstein said some researchers acquire fetal samples from tissue banks, while others work with physician-colleagues who have ongoing relationships with abortion providers.
It's possible to obtain fetal tissue from a miscarriage or stillbirth, but Goldstein said preserving remains after the unexpected loss of a pregnancy is difficult. This tissue is also more likely to contain genetic abnormalities that make it unusable for researchers.
For those reasons, most fetal samples used in scientific studies are collected from elective abortions, congressional researchers have found.
Fetal tissue is valuable in the study of everything from Parkinson's to HIV, but Goldstein said its most significant use has been in developing vaccines that have "saved millions and millions of lives and spared countless people from disability."
Because of the moral issues at stake, though, there are a number of rules governing this research, said Goldstein, who used fetal tissue to study Alzheimer's disease.
Before the study can even begin, he said, scientists generally must come before an institutional review board, a panel that weighs ethical considerations related to human subject research. If the study is funded through a government grant, the researchers also have to notify the National Institutes of Health that they intend to use fetal tissue, according to Goldstein.
And while abortion providers can receive reimbursement for preparing and transporting fetal samples, it's illegal for them to profit from the sale of these remains. Federal regulations prohibit any "inducements, monetary or otherwise" from being offered for an abortion and bar researchers from involvement in the timing or methods of the procedure — firewalls, Goldstein said, meant to ensure that fetal tissue research has no influence on decisions to terminate a pregnancy.
What is Dr. Oz's stance on abortion?
In a 2008 interview, Oz described himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” who believed in individual freedoms but is “not socially conservative.”
“I don’t believe that we should be intruding into the private lives of homosexuals and we should not be creating obstacles during the difficult time that women have when trying to terminate a pregnancy,” he said, adding that the focus should be on making it easier for women deliver a child and give it up for adoption.
More than a decade later, he spoke again about abortion on The Breakfast Club, a syndicated radio show.
Oz’s appearance took place shortly after Alabama lawmakers passed a near-total ban on abortion, allowing no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest. When asked what he thought about the law, the physician responded he was “really worried about it.”
He also talked about meeting women who’d had illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade and the permanent harm they’d suffered because of these unsafe procedures.
“Listen, at a personal level, I wouldn’t want anyone in my family to have an abortion,” he said. “But I don’t want to interfere with everyone else’s stuff because it’s hard enough getting through life as it is.”
Citing these remarks, his rivals in the GOP primary accused him of misrepresenting his true position on the issue and characterized him as “pro-abortion” and “anti-life.”
But Oz has asserted throughout the Senate campaign that he’s “100% pro-life” and opposes abortion, though he agrees with providing legal exceptions when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk or in cases of rape or incest. Recently, a recording surfaced in which he seemed to go further still, saying the procedure is murder at any time in a pregnancy.
During the May tele-town hall, the GOP candidate told a group of supporters that he believes life begins at conception, according to a recording first reported by the Daily Beast.
“If life starts at conception,” the GOP candidate told a group of supporters, “why do you care what age their heart starts beating at? It’s, you know, it’s still murder, if you were to terminate a child whether their heart’s beating or not.”