By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP)–The federal government released final guidelines Aug. 23 permitting taxpayer funding of research on cells from human embryos amid a chorus of criticism from pro-life advocates.
The National Institutes of Health's rules, which have been expected since they were issued in draft form in December, will allow federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving the stem cells, which requires the destruction of the embryos. The extraction of the cells would have to be privately funded.
Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of tissue in the human body develops, providing hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease and diabetes. The announcement of the first isolation of stem cells came in November 1998.
Pro-life lawmakers and ethicists decried the guidelines. The regulations not only violate the sanctity of human life, but they breach federal law and appear to be presumptive when stem cells derived from other sources have shown promise, pro-lifers said.
"Embryonic stem-cell research is illegal, immoral and unnecessary," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., in a written statement.
NIH "is violating both the spirit and letter of the law," Brownback said in reference to a 1996 act prohibiting federal support for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed."
"If we manage the cure of some diseases and the betterment of some aspects of bodily health by means that involve the killing of the most defenseless and innocent of human beings, we will rightfully be judged harshly by history as having sought some benefits at the expense of our humanity and moral being," Brownback said.
Ben Mitchell, a Southern Baptist bioethicist, said he is grateful the guidelines forbid "the use of tax dollars to destroy embryos" but "profound problems" remain.
"First, the wall of separation is highly permeable," said Mitchell, a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "NIH has tried to create a firewall between the act of destroying the embryo and the use of the stem cells in research. Tax-funded researchers will be standing with outstretched hand ready to receive the cells of destroyed embryos. The moral guilt for killing the embryo passes from one hand to the other. Whether NIH will admit it or not, researchers who use stem cells from destroyed embryos are morally complicit in the destruction of those embryos. Afterall, they are providing a market or use for those embryos.
"Second, the guidelines are premature. There is growing evidence that human embryonic stem cells are not necessary for the progress of science or for potential therapies. Every day more data are released showing that other sources of stem cells hold great promise and do not require the destruction of the embryo or fetus.
"Third, the NIH's argument is flawed," said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill. "Human embryos, even at the earliest stages, are fully human. They would develop into fully formed infants if nurtured for nine months. We were all embryos at one time. Moreover, we have a responsibility not to harm other human beings, no matter how young.
"Finally, the fact that these embryos are so-called spare embryos who would be discarded does not, therefore, entail a right for anyone to harvest their life-sustaining parts. Death-row prisoners are going to die anyway. That does not mean that we should be permitted to harvest their life-sustaining organs."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said in a written release, "If a law said that no federal funds may support 'research in which porpoises are destroyed' and a federal agency then told its grantees to arrange for porpoises to be caught and killed for use in federally approved experiments, everyone would recognize this as illegal."
Studies have demonstrated stem cells from such sources as adult bone marrow can be used to produce tissue that would not be tainted by the destruction of human life.
Congress and this year's presidential candidates may be prepared to clash over the guidelines. Congressional proponents of the 1996 ban on embryo research are likely to try to block NIH. Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, are on opposite sides of the issue.
"The governor opposes federal funding for stem-cell research that involves destroying a living human embryo," a Bush campaign spokesman told The Washington Post. If elected, Bush could halt such research by executive order.
Gore supports the guidelines, a spokesman said, according to The Post. The Democratic platform approved the week before said, "We should allow stem-cell research to make important new discoveries."
President Clinton, who has overseen a series of actions opposed to protecting unborn human life since the first week of his administration in 1993, praised the guidelines.
The benefits of such research are "potentially staggering," the president told reporters. "And I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives, to help people literally to get up and walk, to do all kinds of things we could never have imagined, as long as we meet rigorous ethical standards. And I'm convinced … that has been done."
Mitchell and other pro-lifers are not only convinced the guidelines fall short of ethical standards but their meaning is lost on the American public.
"I'm afraid that the general public either doesn't know what NIH is proposing or is unable to grasp its importance," he said. "NIH owes it to the public to educate and inform. Instead, it is happy to make guidelines while the public remains naive."
The guidelines require stem cells to be derived from frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments. They also bar any inducements for patients to donate embryos for research.
A review board to check compliance with the guidelines will be named soon, and NIH will begin accepting funding requests thereafter, the agency said.
The announcement of the NIH guidelines followed by only a week a British proposal that goes beyond the American one. A recommendation by a government advisory commission favored ending Britain's ban on human cloning. The report recommended the prohibition be removed to allow the cloning of human embryos for research on stem cells as long as the embryos are destroyed in the first 14 days.
In December 1999, only a month after the discovery of stem cells was announced, NIH Director Harold Varmus said the agency would underwrite research on stem cells. He based his decision on an opinion from Department of Health and Human Services General Counsel Harriet Rabb in which she said such action would not violate the congressional ban because such cells do not constitute an embryo and cannot develop into a human being.
Members of Congress wrote HHS Secretary Donna Shalala asking her to overrule Varmus' decision and to correct Rabb's interpretation, saying NIH funding of such research would violate the law against funding research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed.
In July, a statement endorsed by specialists in ethics, law, medicine, science and theology was released calling for Congress to maintain its ban on federally funded human embryo research and to clarify the prohibition applies to recently discovered stem-cell research that requires the destruction of such embryos. The signers also called for Congress to provide funds for research into other treatments that do not result in destroying human embryos.
Among the more than 100 signers of the document were several affiliated with the SBC's seminaries and ethics agency: ERLC President Richard Land; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Charles Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Seminary; Daniel Heimbach, ethics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Mitchell, one of the document's drafters.
Used with Permission.