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NIH draft limits funds to IVF embryos

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WASHINGTON (BP)–The Obama administration issued draft guidelines Friday that limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to experiments with human embryos stored at fertility clinics.

The regulations, which have been awaited since President Obama lifted a Bush administration ban on embryonic stem cell research March 9, restrict grants for such studies to embryos produced by in vitro fertilization and donated by couples who no longer want them and voluntarily provide their written consent.

The guidelines exclude funding for research on embryos created for experimentation by in vitro fertilization or cloning. They permit grants for research using adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, two types of research that are supported by pro-lifers, have shown much promise and do not involve embryos.

Embryonic stem cell research is lethal for the days-old human being, because the extraction of stem cells results in the embryo’s destruction.

Among the American public, “there is broad support for the use of federal funds on cells derived” from embryos that supposedly would be destroyed by fertility clinics, said Raynard Kington, the National Institutes of Health’s acting director said, according to The Washington Post. “There is not similar broad support for using stem cells from other sources.”

In the guidelines, NIH acknowledges grants for “the derivation of stem cells from human embryos” are barred by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. That measure has been a part of spending legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services since 1996. Named after its sponsors, former Republican Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the law prohibits federal funds from being used for the creation of human embryos for research as well as for experimentation in which the health or life of embryos is threatened or destroyed.

Pro-life advocates expect members of Congress will seek to rescind Dickey-Wicker in the annual appropriations bill, thereby opening the way for the funding of the creation of embryos (including cloning) for research.

“[T]he political campaign has begun to destroy the Dickey Amendment,” bioethicist Wesley J. Smith wrote on his blog following the HHS announcement. “Should that happen, it would be legal for the Feds to fund human cloning, the making of embryos for research, and just about anything ‘the scientists’ wanted to do in this regard. Once that happened, the NIH would likely revise these guidelines to permit funding for those activities…. [E]xpect the struggle over Dickey to erupt within the next few years during the annual budgetary process. And if a bill passes sans the Amendment, there is no question in my mind that Obama would sign it.”

According to HHS’ interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, federal funds can be used for embryonic stem cell research as long as the embryos themselves are destroyed using private sector money.

In his March 9 order, Obama directed NIH to issue guidelines on federal funding of the research within 120 days. Final guidelines will be issued sometime after a 30-day public comment period. The time for comments will begin when the draft guidelines are published in the Federal Register, which is expected to be by April 24, according to NIH. The guidelines may be accessed online at http://stemcells.nih.gov/policy/2009draft.

The office of Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, released a statement saying, “While Dr. Page would wish for a ban on all embryonic stem cell research that results from the destruction of any human embryos (which he refers to as unborn babies), he is somewhat heartened by the fact that the White House has issued forth regulations which prohibit any stem cell research which would come from embryos created for research. Under the new guidelines, the only research that will be allowed, under federal funding, will be those stem cells which are extracted from embryos (unborn babies) which come from leftover embryos from couples who have been attempting in vitro fertilization and have not used all of the viable embryos. While this is not what Dr. Page and other pro-life leaders would wish, at least it does reduce the possibility of the creation of human life for the purpose of destruction and then research, at least to some degree.

It continued, “Dr. Page continues to ask for the prayers of God’s people as he attempts to take a pro-life stance on this very important council.”

Stem cells provide hope for producing cures for a variety of diseases, because of their ability to develop into other cells and tissues.

Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research, because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. Embryonic stem cell research, however, has at least three drawbacks: 1) Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being; 2) it has yet to produce any therapies in human beings; and 3) it has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Stem cells from non-embryonic sources, however, have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, despite the fact such cells are not considered pluripotent, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Among the afflictions treated by non-embryonic cells are cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, according to Do No Harm. Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor.

Another alternative to embryonic stem cell research that has shown great promise in the last 18 months is research with iPS cells, which are reprogrammed adult skin cells that have the properties of embryonic stem cells and do not require harming embryos.

Bush’s August 2001 rule permitted grants for experiments on embryonic stem cell lines, or colonies, already in existence, while prohibiting research on any lines created after his order. Congress twice approved legislation to liberalize Bush’s policy, but he vetoed both bills. Efforts to override the vetoes failed.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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