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Panel approves embryo research; unethical, illegal, Mitchell says

WASHINGTON (BP)–A presidential commission on bioethics, as expected, has recommended the federal government fund research on human embryos in order to develop treatments for various diseases, with the White House’s apparent approval.
Such action is unethical and seemingly illegal, despite White House statements to the contrary, said a Southern Baptist bioethics specialist.
The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which already had signaled its intentions, recommended federal funding of research on unwanted human embryos left at fertility clinics, with the mother’s consent, The Washington Post reported. The panel opposed, however, the creation of embryos as sources of stem cells, according to the report.
Stem cells are primitive cells from which all kinds of tissue in the human body develop. The first isolation of these cells from human embryos was announced in November. The ability to isolate stem cells from human embryos provides hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns. This form of stem-cell research results in the killing of the embryo, however.
After the report of the NBAC’s decision, the Clinton administration released a statement July 14 expressing gratitude for the commission’s work, saying NBAC “appears ready to endorse the medical promise and ethical acceptability of certain types of human stem-cell research.” The White House said neither President Clinton’s 1994 ban on federal funding of the creation of human embryos for experimentation nor a 1995 congressional prohibition on human embryo research would be violated, because the stem cells will be available from embryos created by privately funded research.
“The White House is begging the question. Human embryonic stem cell research which destroys embryos is by its very nature unethical,” said Ben Mitchell, a biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “To co-opt tax-paying citizens by using their dollars to fund such research is unconscionable.
“There is no way to divorce the human embryonic stem cell research from the act of killing the embryo. Complicity with the act of killing is as immoral as the act itself.
“In addition, it’s pretty clear that the research would be illegal. … If the administration continues to use this kind of rhetoric, it is inviting both a lawsuit and some form of congressional intervention,” said Mitchell, a professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.
Some members of Congress have already expressed their displeasure with the administration.
The month after the discovery of stem cells was announced, National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus announced 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 a congressional ban on human embryo research legal because such cells do not constitute an embryo and cannot develop into a human being. Varmus’ ruling would permit federal funding of research on stem cells obtained by privately financed means.
Members of Congress wrote HHS Secretary Donna Shalala asking her to overrule Varmus’ decision and to correct Rabb’s interpretation, saying 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.”
On July 1, a statement endorsed by specialists in ethics, law, medicine, science and theology was released calling for Congress to maintain its ban on federally funded human embryo research and to clarify the prohibition applies to recently discovered stem-cell research that requires the destruction of such embryos. The signers also call for Congress to provide funds for research into other treatments that do not result in destroying human embryos.
Among the more than 100 signers of the document were several affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention’s seminaries and ethics agency. Southern Baptists signing the statement were Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Charles Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Seminary; Daniel Heimbach, ethics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Mitchell, one of the document’s drafters.
The signers said the government should promote the development of alternative ways of repairing and redeveloping human tissue, such as stem cells available from bone marrow and from the placenta or umbilical cord blood in live births, from fetal bone marrow and from living human nerve tissue. Even if such alternative treatments do not prove as efficient as stem cells from human embryos, the destruction of embryos is still not justified, the signers said.