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Pro-lifers: Stem cell rules step downward

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Obama administration’s draft guidelines on funding embryonic stem cell research are not as bad as they could have been, but they appear to be a step toward something much worse, pro-life leaders say.

The proposed regulations issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) April 17 limit federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to experiments with human embryos stored at fertility clinics. The rules would restrict grants to studies on embryos produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF) 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 IVF or cloning. They permit grants for research using adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, two types of promising experimentation that do not involve embryos and are supported by pro-lifers.

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

“[W]hile the picture on the whole is grim, it certainly could have been worse,” said Yuval Levin, director of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center’s bioethics and American democracy program.

“For those of us who oppose the destruction of human embryos for research, this is of course a grave and regrettable step in the wrong direction,” Levin said in a commentary at National Review Online. “The government will now hold out taxpayer money as an incentive for the destruction of embryos for the first time: saying to researchers in effect ‘if you destroy an embryo, you become eligible for these funds.'”

While the limits are “certainly more than I expected,” Levin said, they appear to exist as “a tactical decision not to get ahead of the scientists (and pay a needless political cost), so as to be able to keep up with them in the future.”

Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, said the guidelines form a “seeming restraint” that actually is a slide “further down the slippery slope of exploiting non-consenting members of the human species — human embryos.”

The rules are “part of an incremental strategy intended to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes,” Johnson said in a written statement.

“We believe [the NIH draft rules] may be part of a ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy, under which Democratic leaders in Congress will suddenly bring up new legislation that they will claim codifies [the] NIH action, but which will in fact authorize further expansions involving the deliberate creation of human embryos for use in research, by human cloning and other methods,” Johnson said.

If successful, such an effort would empower the federal government to underwrite “human embryo farms,” Johnson has warned.

One restraint on further funding of embryonic stem cell research is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. That measure has been a part of spending legislation for the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH’s parent department, since 1996. Named after its sponsors, former Republican Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the law bars 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.

Some congressional advocates of funding embryonic stem cell research have targeted Dickey-Wicker for repeal.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, warned the NIH regulations “purport to have tight informed consent requirements, but they don’t even require IVF doctors and the stem cell researchers to work separately, thereby opening a gaping loophole for the researchers to increase embryo production for their research.”

The NIH guidelines came in response to President Obama’s March 9 order lifting a Bush administration ban on stem cell research that results in the destruction of an embryo. Obama directed NIH to issue rules on stem cell funding 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.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have urged the federal government to focus its funding on work with adult stem cells and iPS cells.

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

Meanwhile, iPS cells, which are reprogrammed adult skin cells that have the properties of embryonic stem cells and do not require harming embryos, have shown great promise in the last 18 months.

Many scientists have promoted ESCR, because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. ESCR, 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.

Adult stem cells are considered multipotent, meaning they can convert into many but not all cells or tissues in the body.

President 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.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief. With reporting by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.