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Bush administration reverses guidelines on embryo research

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Bush administration has made clear it will not permit federal funds for research requiring the destruction of human embryos, causing opponents of a previous policy to withdraw a lawsuit as a result.

The signing into law by President Bush of a related spending bill and a legal memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services on consecutive days recently clarified the federal government will not fund research in which embryos are destroyed. The actions completed the reversal of a policy adopted late in the administration of President Clinton that allowed funding of stem cell research involving embryo destruction.

“Once again we have a vivid illustration of the fact that elections have consequences,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This is a perfect example to give to people when they ask, ‘Well, why should we bother to vote?’

“This Bush administration decision is a good consequence of an election, in that it reverses by 180 degrees extremely bad guidelines put in place by the Clinton administration. This is a significant victory for the sanctity of life.”

The Bush administration’s moves, which followed an announcement of the president’s policy in August last year, led to the Jan. 14 dropping of a suit against HHS and the National Institutes of Health by several parties, including Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the Christian Medical Association and potentially adoptive parents of human embryos. The suit contended the federal agencies violated a congressional ban on the funding of destructive embryo research.

The recent HHS memo convinced the parties in the suit “the Bush administration, contrary to the previous administration, is complying with and intends to properly interpret and strictly follow the federal funding ban” adopted by Congress, said Sam Casey, executive director of the Christian Legal Society and a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “We can’t legally ask for anything more at this time. We applaud the Bush administration for taking the lawful course that the prior administration was trying to evade.”

The parties had filed suit in March last year in a District of Columbia federal court in response to NIH guidelines issued under the Clinton White House in August 2000. The NIH rules allowed federal funds to be used for experimentation on stem cells taken from early human embryos. Though the rules did not permit funding of the actual procurement of the cells, which destroys the embryo, they allowed spending for research using cells extracted with private funds. Stems cells are primitive cells that have shown promise in treating a variety of diseases.

In November last year, the Bush administration withdrew, in essence, the NIH guidelines. On Jan. 10, the president signed into law the appropriations bill for the Labor, HHS and Education departments. The legislation again contained language first approved in 1995 that blocked federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.”

When he signed the bill, Bush said he was pleased the measure “retains the prohibition against research in which human embryos are destroyed and reinforces my determination on Aug. 9, 2001, to support federally funded stem-cell research in an ethical manner.”

The day after the bill was signed, HHS General Counsel Alex Azar issued a memo to NIH saying the president’s policy announced in August “is consistent with the plain language” of the congressional ban. The Jan. 11 memo said Bush’s policy would neither fund the creation of a human embryo for research nor underwrite research in which an embryo was destroyed.

In his announcement in August, Bush said he would permit funding for research on the more than 60 lines, or colonies, of existing stem cells “where the life-and-death decision has already been made.” He said the policy would allow research “without crossing a fundamental moral line” of funding the destruction of human embryos.

While acknowledging Bush’s decision could have been worse, the ERLC’s Land and some other pro-life leaders expressed disappointment the president did not also bar funding for research on the existing cell lines.

When the Clinton-era NIH issued its controversial guidelines in 2000, the ERLC, as well as other pro-life organizations and pro-life leaders in Congress, criticized the action as a violation of the sanctity of human life and the federal law first passed in 1995. The ban on destructive embryo funding became known as the Dickey amendment, so named because Rep. Jay Dickey, R.-Ark., was its chief sponsor. Dickey is no longer in the House of Representatives.

Opponents of the NIH guidelines hoped Bush would rescind them when he took office last January, but new HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced a decision on the rules would not be made until the summer. Thompson encouraged researchers to apply for funding in the meantime.

In response to Thompson’s announcement, the ERLC and other pro-life organizations wrote Bush asking him to clarify his position by rescinding the NIH rules.

Members of Congress are expected to seek to liberalize the president’s policy. It appears Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., will push a bill expanding federal funding to stem cell research requiring the destruction of human embryos. While the proposal may meet with success in the Senate, it is unlikely to survive the House.

Though the ERLC and other pro-life groups oppose embryonic stem cell research, they support the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow. The procurement of cells from such sources does not harm a human being. Studies have demonstrated stem cells from these sources can be effective.

The isolation of stem cells for the first time in 1998 provided 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.

Nightlight Christian Adoptions, one of the parties in the withdrawn suit, is a California agency that arranges through its Snowflakes Program for infertile couples to adopt human embryos in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics.