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NIH to fund stem-cell research, though destroying embryos involved


WASHINGTON (BP)–The federal government will fund research on primitive cells with vast, healing potential, even though it requires the destruction of human embryos.
The National Institutes of Health announced Jan. 19 it would fund research on “pluripotent stem cells” after gaining an opinion from government lawyers it would not violate a congressional ban on human embryo research. According to NIH, the general counsel’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services determined stem-cell research is legal because such cells do not constitute an embryo and cannot develop into a human being. The opinion also said cells taken from “non-living fetuses” would be subject to federal guidelines on research using fetal tissue, which is legal.
Stem cells are able to divide and to develop into most of the cells or tissues in the body, according to NIH. The landmark achievement of isolating stem cells from human embryos, announced only two months ago, 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 in early November 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.
Pro-life advocates called the NIH decision unethical and illegal, because stem-cell research requires the destruction of human embryos.
The NIH announcement “means that our tax dollars will be used to fund the exploitation of the tiniest of human beings for the benefits of others,” said Ben Mitchell, a Southern Baptist bioethics specialist. “This is the kind of utilitarian ethic we have been warning about. Human beings, including human embryos, are to be treated with dignity and respect and are not to be used as means to someone else’s ends.”
Mitchell is an ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said in a written release, “It is illegal for the Clinton administration to fund research in which embryos are killed in order to provide these tissues. NIH may think it can protect itself by requiring that the embryos actually be killed by someone not receiving federal funds or by requiring the federally funded researcher to clock out when he kills the embryos — but these would be subterfuges and do violence to the clear intent of the law.”
NRLC contends the ban on federal funding of human embryo research covers not only the destruction of human embryos but any research in which human embryos are destroyed. In the work done by the Wisconsin scientists, stem cells were taken from living embryos, “who were thereby killed,” NRLC said.
The ban, which does not control privately funded research, has been in effect since 1995 as an amendment to the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services. Rep. Jay Dickey, R.-Ark., one of the drafters of the ban, said when the isolation of stem cells was announced in November he had no intention of lifting the prohibition for stem-cell research. “A human embryo is a human being and must be accorded the moral status of a person from the time of fertilization,” he said then. The other drafter of the legislation is Rep. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss.
Some pro-lifers said the NIH decision would result in establishing a market for the mass killing of human embryos, according to The Washington Post.
NIH Director Harold Varmus denied that would happen, saying the “supply of these cells is far in excess of demand,” The Post reported. “This would not drive or increase the use of either in vitro fertilization or abortion for research purposes,” he said, according to The Post.
There will be no funding of stem-cell research until both guidelines and an oversight process are in place, NIH said.
What NIH failed to say is there are alternatives in treatment research “to killing human embryos,” Mitchell said. “The wholesale use of human embryos may discourage researchers from pursuing those alternatives. To neglect those alternatives for the sake of convenience is a grievous state of affairs.”
After scientists announced their discoveries in November, Mitchell and ERLC President Richard Land not only endorsed retaining the funding ban on embryo research but proposed Congress consider forming a national biotechnology commission to supervise and establish guidelines in the field. The panel would resemble the Atomic Energy Commission, a federal government body that regulated even private corporations in the development of atomic energy.
Biotechnology in the next century “will not diminish these debates but multiply them,” Mitchell said. “Increasingly, efforts will be made to experiment on and commercialize human embryos. Those who respect human dignity can neither remain ignorant nor silent. We must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”