Although scientific research involving legally aborted fetuses is not being done in Utah, it is still a possibility and something local doctors say could pioneer medical research.

"The mere fact that people are thinking about it and are obtaining some information from other institutions doing this, could affect some of the research being conducted in Utah," said Dr. Harry Gibbons, executive director of the Salt Lake City/County Health Department.But if such experiments were to occur in Utah, researchers would have to weather a storm of controversy as society struggles with the moral and legal ramifications.

Evidence of such a struggle that could eventually affect Utah is occurring in Washington, D.C., where an expert panel has been meeting again this month to consider the issue - tagged as "one of the most emotional in medical history."

"I think with extremely rigid and strict guidelines, it should be pursued," said Gibbons. "I can remember when organ transplants were a horrible thought - taking an organ from someone and giving to someone else.

Under extremely rigid, ethical, practical, moral guidelines set by institutional review boards, I think this would be appropriate."

Fetal tissue research is not new. Cultures of fetal kidney cells played a crucial role in development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s. But recent advances in biology and medicine have vastly increased its potential for basic research and treatment of devastating illnesses.

"We are aware of the research being done in other parts of the world and have had some visiting surgeons from China who have done research with aborted fetuses in China," said John Dwan, University of Utah Medical Center spokesman.

"But research with aborted fetuses has not been done at the U. It is not being done, and there are no plans to do it. That's not to say someone won't in the future."

As the benefits of aborted fetus research becomes increasingly evident, Gibbons believes such research will likely be undertaken in the near future in Utah.

Dwan said the medical school administration has discussed the social and political ramifications of such research, "but it's a bridge we haven't had to cross because no one has yet proposed such research."

While the thought of using aborted fetuses for scientific research may seem blasphemous to some (President Reagan last March suspended all federal funding for fetus research on ethical grounds), such research is being conducted around the world with increasing frequency and with startling results.

"When we transplant fetal tissue, it's almost like planting a seed and watching a tree grow," says Kevin J. Lafferty, a diabetes researcher at the University of Colorado.

One Swedish scientist recently told the National Institutes of Health that "we have approached a point where I believe it is unethical not to try these procedures in patients."

In animal experiments and limited human studies, transplantation of fetal tissue has shown promise for treatment of such illnesses as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and leukemia. Fetal cells are valuable in medical research because they grow faster than adult cells, adapt well to a new environment and are easy to freeze and store. And, because it is at the earliest stage of development, transplanted fetal tissue is less likely to be rejected by the body's immune system.

The National Institutes of Health spent $11.2 million on human fetal tissue research last year - less than 0.2 percent of the institutes' budget. But the projects involved, said institutes' Director James B. Wyngaar-den, "are some of the most promising in biomedical research."

And, some of the most controversial.

But before such experiments are ever conducted in Utah, Gibbons said, researchers must agree to a stringent set of ethical guidelines, including banning the sale of aborted fetuses.

"Like transplants, it is possible for someone to benefit from the problems of others," Gibbons said. "I could foresee women becoming pregnant, trying to sell fetuses for research - and that's scary."

There is also some concern that if science needs more fetuses for research that abortions will become morally acceptable and that women will be encouraged to have abortions to advance scientific research. Proponents of fetal research say that is nonsense.

"Imagine a U.S. senator or state legislator proposing to raise the speed limit on interstate highways to 120 mph . . . on the grounds that there is a shortage of organs for transplantation, and that this was an effective way to increase the supply," said Thomas H. Murray, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

Using tissue from aborted fetuses to save lives or treat suffering, Murray said, does not imply moral approval of abortion "any more than transplanting organs from dead bodies of motorcycle accident victims indicates approval of those accidents."

There is no Utah law regulating the disposal of aborted fetuses, if the fetus is aborted before the first 20 weeks of gestation.

About 1.5 million elective abortions are performed each year in the United States, a total that has remained fairly constant for the past decade. About 90 percent of induced abortions are performed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Shauna Bennett, director of the Utah Women's Health Center, which performs about 300 legal abortions a month, said aborted fetal remains in Utah are typically cremated.

No researchers, in or outside of Utah, have inquired about obtaining aborted fetal remains, Bennett said.