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House members call for Shalala to reverse decision on stem cells

WASHINGTON (BP)–Seventy members of the U.S. House of Representatives have called on Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to reverse a decision to fund cell research that requires the destruction of human embryos.
In a letter delivered to Shalala Feb. 16, the representatives criticized a ruling by National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus that the agency would underwrite research on stem cells, which are primitive cells that have vast healing potential. They also sharply disagreed with a memorandum from HHS General Counsel Harriet Rabb to Varmus in which she said such action would not violate a congressional ban on human embryo research. The letter asked Shalala to overrule Varmus’ decision and to correct Rabb’s interpretation.
Varmus announced in mid-December NIH would fund stem-cell research, basing his decision on Rabb’s opinion it would be legal because such cells do not constitute an embryo and cannot develop into a human being. When stem cells are obtained from a human embryo for research, however, the embryo is destroyed. The ruling would permit federal funding of research on stem cells obtained by privately financed means.
NIH funding of such research “would violate both the letter and spirit of the federal law banning federal support for research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed,” the letter said. Rabb made “significant errors” in reaching her conclusion, including narrowing the ban’s scope to “direct funding of the specific act of destroying the embryo,” according to the letter.
“While the act of destroying or injuring an embryo would certainly be ineligible for federal funding, the law has a broader application,” the representatives said. “It also bars the use of tax dollars to fund research which follows or depends upon the destruction of or injury to a human embryo.”
The ban the representatives say NIH’s decision would violate has been in effect since January 1996 as an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for Health and Human Services. It says funds may not be used for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes” or “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero … .” It does not prohibit privately funded research.
More than 20 years of federal protections for the human embryo and fetus against harmful experimentation have “provided a bulwark against government’s misuse and exploitation of human beings in the name of medical progress,” the representatives wrote. “It would be a travesty for this administration to attempt to unravel this accepted ethical standard.”
Among the 70 members signing the letter were eight Democrats. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R.-Texas, signed it.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., chairman of a subcommittee that supervises NIH, supports stem-cell research, however. According to a Feb. 17 report in The New York Times, Specter said “we are in very deep water” on the issues the representatives raised but “what we are looking at in broader terms is the possible cure for major diseases … from the use of what are essentially discarded embryos.”
When Varmus announced his decision, pro-life advocates decried it as unethical and illegal. Ben Mitchell, a Southern Baptist bioethics specialist, said at the time it “means that our tax dollars will be used to fund the exploitation of the tiniest of human beings for the benefits of others.”
Mitchell is an ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Stem cells are able to divide and to develop into most of the cells or tissues in the body. The landmark achievement of isolating stem cells from human embryos, announced in early November, provides hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns, NIH reported.
The announcement stem cells had been isolated was made by teams of scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Wisconsin team took the stem cells from living embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic, while the Johns Hopkins team obtained their cells from aborted babies.
There will be no funding of stem-cell research until both guidelines and an oversight process are in place, according to the NIH announcement in December.