Washington -- Despite pro-life opposition, federally funded researchers eager to study human embryonic stem cells inched closer to their goal, as a 13-member National Institutes of Health advisory committee charged with developing guidelines discussed a near-final draft during a public hearing at NIH.
At the request of NIH Director Harold Varmus, the panel's rules would eventually allow federal researchers access to the cells, "as long as somebody else derived them, using private money."
At the hearing, the House Pro-Life Caucus and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops "objected strenuously" to HHS' January decision to permit the research, arguing that it violates the intent of the congressional ban on human embryo research.
Pro-life Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and eight other senators voiced similar concerns in a letter to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, saying that by allowing the research, she "would be sidestepping Congress's clear intent by administrative fiat" (Wade, New York Times, 4/9).
As the working group tackled the issue, the Washington Post reports that it is likely to spark "a legal, scientific and political debate that is expected to stretch through the summer and could become part of the congressional budget deliberations this fall." Faced with a likely flood of responses to the guidelines, committee members said they hope a "well-crafted package of rules" will head off a fractious debate and "reassure Congress that it need not address stem cell research directly when it comes time to consider next year's funding for the NIH."
In accordance with President Clinton's executive directive, the rules allow federal researchers to use only those stem cells cultured from embryos leftover from couples' infertility treatments. In an effort to ensure that the cells are obtained ethically, the panelists decided that only intermediaries could approach couples about donating leftover embryos, and only after the couple had already decided to discard their remaining embryos. Consenting women would have to be informed that their embryos could be grown into tissue and transplanted into patients, but they would be unable to designate a chosen recipient, as is allowed for some organ donors. In addition, the rules would ban women from selling their leftover embryos, although companies could profit from the sales of tissue derived from the donated embryos (Weiss, Washington Post, 4/9). Under the proposed guidelines, federal researchers would be prohibited from using the cells to clone humans or piece together an embryo using the donated cells, and fetal stem cells could be used, but only those obtained "after a spontaneous abortion or induced abortion or after a stillbirth" (Recer, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/9). Once they are in final form, the guidelines will be open to public comment for two months and will require approval from the full NIH panel and Varmus (Wade, New York Times, 4/9).
Maggie Wynne, of the House of Representatives' Pro Life Caucus, said that any human embryo research, even under the proposed guidelines, would "violate the letter and spirit" of the congressional ban.
Meanwhile, National Review's John Miller reports that a "powerful coalition including the Clinton administration and pro-abortion groups, as well as biotechnology companies, universities, and patient-advocacy outfits, are determined to railroad right-to-lifers" on the emerging issue of human embryo research.
Miller notes that with the "partial-birth" abortion fight essentially lost for opponents of abortion, embryo research is now a top legislative priority. Those in favor of a ban, however, are "pitted against interests that stand to win millions of dollars in federal funding," not to mention future profits.
Miller recalls the excitement surrounding advances using stem cell research and a subsequent HHS memo that said stem-cell research is permissible under federal law because stem cells are not technically embryos. Miller reports that the memo was prepared by HHS general counsel Harrier Rabb, formerly of the ACLU, and former NARAL lobbyist Marcy Wilder, who "essentially argued that NIH researchers can't actually kill the embryos -- at least while they're on government time -- but are allowed to work on embryo parts."
Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said of the logic, "It's like saying you won't pay to have someone kill me, but will experiment on my heart right after watching someone else rip it out of my body." Even Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), a stem-cell research proponent, told the New York Times, "We are in very deep water."
Miller rightly contends that abortion advocates are eager to promote stem-cell research, as it "destigmatizes abortion. Just imagine an abortion counselor telling a young woman that ending her pregnancy will help scientists improve another person's life. And pro-abortion advocates relish the sight of pro-lifers arguing against the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation."
Miller concludes by noting that soon enough, scientists will be able to obtain stem cells from adult tissue. "There are no fundamental barriers to achieving pluripotent stem cells form adults," said molecular biologist John Fagan. It will take a "few years," however, to develop the technology, and "only a pro-life minority seems willing to wait." Late last year, Specter wondered whether stem-cell research could create "a realistic fountain of youth." Miller writes that "[h]is allies are ready to find out, even if it means bankrolling a culture of death" (Miller, National Review, 4/5 issue).
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