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Comment period on embryo stem cells extended; agency denies heavy response

WASHINGTON (BP)–The public comment period on the federal government’s proposal to fund experimentation on primitive cells from human embryos, research which requires the destruction of unborn children, has been lengthened by three weeks.

The announcement by the National Institutes of Health of an extension until Feb. 22 followed by two weeks a report the guidelines had been opposed by two of every three people who had commented. A NIH spokesman denied the extension beyond the initial deadline of Jan. 31 had anything to do with the heavily negative response to the agency’s guidelines.

The proposed guidelines, which were issued Dec. 1, recommend government funding of the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not of the actual act of deriving the stem cells, which requires the destruction of the embryos. The derivation of the cells would have to be privately funded.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of tissues in the human body develops, providing hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of diseases.

The distinction between not funding the destruction of embryos while underwriting research on cells from those destroyed embryos has not stemmed the opposition of pro-life advocates.

“If followed, the guidelines would erase the moral and legal boundaries between killing human embryos and using their cells and tissues for experimental purposes,” said Ben Mitchell, a bio-ethics consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The NIH proposal wants us to act as if there were no linkage between killing human embryos and fetuses and using their body parts for research. Ethically, you simply cannot divorce the act of killing from the act of exploiting.”

That recognition by pro-lifers fueled a reaction that resulted in 68 percent of comments to NIH being in opposition, as of Jan. 14, according to a report on the Web site of Stem Cell Research News. The publication cited NIH sources for the information.

That margin was not great as it had been in early January, when opposition was running 10 to 1 against the proposal, according to an e-mail from a pro-guidelines organization. In an e-mail passed on to Baptist Press, a staff member for the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington urged others to generate 50 positive comments or more a piece to offset the opposition’s huge advantage.

Marc Stern, a NIH spokesman, said the deadline for comments was pushed back for two reasons: (1) The federal government was shut down two days because of snow and ice, and (2) a “number of people asked for extra time to formulate their thoughts.”

When asked if the period was extended because comments were tilted so heavily against the guidelines, Stern said, “No.” He also denied one side dominated the requests for extra time to make comments.

“Hundreds of people have misunderstood” the purpose of the comment period, Stern said. It “is for comment about the draft guidelines, not the concept” of stem cell research, he said.

“The fact that comments were running two to one against the proposed guidelines certainly makes one suspicious that things weren’t turning out the way NIH had hoped,” said Mitchell, an assistant professor of bio-ethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. “We do know that proponents of the new guidelines are very concerned. In fact, this just gives us additional time to mount a better-informed and numerically larger response to the NIH.”

Written comments should be sent by mail to Stem Cell Guidelines, NIH Office of Science Policy, 1 Center Drive, Building 1, Room 218, Bethesda, MD 20892; by fax to (301) 402-0280, or by e-mail to [email protected]

Advocates of the research have expressed hope the cells could be used ultimately for transplantation in treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns.

Seventeen Republican senators sent a letter to NIH in late January calling for it to withdraw the guidelines. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and the others told the agency the proposal conflicts with a 1996 law that banned federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.”

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.