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ERLC urges Bush to repeal NIH rules on embryo research

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics agency has called on President Bush to clarify his position on stem-cell research by repealing the federal government’s rules that permit the destruction of human embryos in such experimentation.

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land urged Bush in a March 2 letter to make clear his administration’s position on the controversial issue as soon as possible and to either “suspend or rescind” the National Institutes of Health guidelines governing such research. Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a consultant to the ERLC, also signed the letter.

The March 2 letter came after a newspaper reported Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration would determine by this summer whether to permit human embryonic stem-cell research to proceed after a review of the NIH guidelines adopted under President Clinton. In the meantime, however, Thompson said he has given approval for researchers to apply to NIH for funds for such research, according to the March 1 issue of The Los Angeles Times. The deadline for applications is March 15.

The ERLC letter called Thompson’s encouragement of researchers “unconscionable.” The HHS secretary’s action “gives tacit approval for the destruction of human embryos,” Land and Mitchell said.

“We maintain that if the NIH funds human embryonic stem-cell research then the government is complicit in the act of killing nascent human lives,” they wrote. “The notion of a moral firewall between the act of killing embryos for their cells and the research using those cells is a fiction.”

They welcome a review of the NIH guidelines “but not without respect to the ethical issues at stake,” Land and Mitchell wrote. “We believe that the administration should send a clear signal to researchers that the process of embryonic destruction should not begin and that this administration intends to protect every human life, including the lives of cryogenically preserved human embryos.”

Land and Mitchell told the president they believe the position of Southern Baptists is consistent with his on the subject. Bush has said he is opposed to federal funding of research using destroyed human embryos but recently ordered a HHS review of the issue before any possible action is taken. The SBC adopted a resolution in 1999 opposing research requiring the destruction of human embryos and supporting alternative therapies.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which organs and tissue in the human body develop. Their isolation for the first time in late 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.

Pro-life advocates overwhelmingly have opposed such experimentation on human embryos because it requires their destruction. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow, because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources can be effective.

In August, NIH issued rules allowing federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life. They also said it was a presumptive move when stem cells from other sources have shown promise.

The ERLC also joined with other pro-life organizations in a joint letter to Bush making the same request Land and Mitchell had. In the March 5 letter, the 10 groups said Thompson’s invitation to researchers gives them a “green light” to destroy embryos. The NIH grant process calls for research applicants to destroy embryos with private funds and document with their applications how they obtained and destroyed the embryos, according to the letter. Thompson’s announcement “invites researchers to proceed to destroy embryos now, even before the submission deadline of March 15, so they can submit valid applications and be eligible for federal funds,” the letter said.

Among other organizations signing the letter were American Family Association, Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, National Association of Evangelicals and Traditional Values Coalition.

Other pro-life organizations also called for the Bush administration to act following the report of Thompson’s comments. The Christian Medical Association sent a letter to Thompson asking him to oppose funding of embryonic stem-cell research. The Republican National Coalition for Life advocated an executive order from Bush prohibiting federal funding for such experimentation and a legislative proposal from the president criminalizing such research using private funds.