Members Of Congress Object To Stem Cell Decision

WASHINGTON -- February 1999 -- Seventy members of Congress wrote a letter Tuesday formally objecting to a Health and Human Services (HHS) decision to fund some kinds of controversial research using cells taken from human embryos.

Last month National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Harold Varmus said HHS lawyers had decided the U.S. government could pay for such research on so-called stem cells, so long as publicly funded researchers do not grow the cells themselves.

Varmus said his agency intended to go ahead with plans to give money to academic researchers to work with embryonic stem cells, which are taken from very early human embryos and have the potential to develop into any kind of cell in the body. Pro-life supporters oppose this as it would result in the destruction of unborn children.

But a bipartisan group of 70 members of Congress, said they believed this would be illegal.

"Any NIH action to initiate funding of such research would violate both the letter and the spirit of the federal law," they said in a letter to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.

"We urge you to review this issue carefully and to put a stop to a proceeding which so clearly does violence to the meaning and intent of federal law."

Among those signing the letter were pro-life House of Representatives Majority leader Dick Armey and pro-life Reps. Dan Burton (R-IN) and Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Currently federal law forbids the use of public money to pay for research that involves damaging or manipulating live human embryos.

Despite Pro-Life Opposition Federal Stem Cell Tests To Proceed

WASHINGTON -- February 1999 -- Federal scientists will continue planning research using human stem cells despite arguments by pro-life members of Congress that the studies would violate a federal ban, the secretary of health and human services says.c Donna Shalala, the HHS secretary, said Tuesday that she believes the federal law permits the study of cultured human stem cells even though the cells were originally obtained from human embryos.

"The law allows stem cell research," Shalala told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS spending. "We intend to move forward in a careful, deliberative process."

Pro-abortion Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the subcommittee chairman and a supporter of stem cell research, asked if new legislation were needed.

"We don't believe a change in law is necessary," Shalala said. Shalala's statement contradicts contentions by some lawmakers.

A letter signed by 70 pro-life House members and sent to Shalala last week argued that any government-funded research using human stem cells would violate a federal ban because the cells originated from human embryos that would be destroyed. A letter signed last week by seven senators made similar objections.

The congressional letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala was drafted by the House pro-life caucus, chaired by Reps. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and James Barcia (D-MI). Signatories included Tom DeLay (R-TX), the majority whip, and Richard Armey (R-TX) the majority leader, and Henry Hyde (R-IL). Several pro-life Democrats were also among the signers.

A 1996 law specifically forbids federal funding of research in which human embryos are created or destroyed.

The lawmakers' letters followed the January announcement by Dr. Harold Varmus, head of the National Institutes of Health, that the ban did not cover stem cells living in a laboratory culture. He said the NIH was planning to finance stem cell research.

Shalala wrote to pro-life Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR), first signer of the House letter, that the ban applies only to research in which human embryos are destroyed or discarded, but "not to research preceding or following such research projects."

"I have been advised that there is nothing in the legislative history to suggest that the provision was intended to prohibit funding for research in which embryos ... are not involved," she wrote.

The House members' letter rightly contended the ban applied to any research "which follows or depends upon the destruction of or injury to a human embryo."

Dickey spokesman Rod Johnson said the congressman had not yet seen Shalala's letter and had no immediate comment.

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