News Articles

SBC bioethicist: NIH guidelines represent ‘biotech cannibalism’

WASHINGTON (BP)–The federal government has proposed guidelines on federally funded research of primitive cells from human embryos, drawing criticism from pro-life advocates for recommending a process that requires the destruction of unborn human beings.

The proposed guidelines from the National Institutes of Health recommend government funding of the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not of the actual act of deriving the stem cells, which requires the destruction of the embryos. The derivation of the cells would have to be privately funded.

Stem cells are primitive cells from which a wide variety of tissue in the human body develops, providing hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of diseases.

That distinction between not funding the destruction of embryos while underwriting research on cells from those destroyed embryos did nothing to allay the concerns of opponents of stem-cell research.

The NIH guidelines “represent government-funded, biotech cannibalism,” said Ben Mitchell, a Southern Baptist bioethicist.

“Derivation of stem cells cannot be separated from the use of those cells. The decision to kill embryos taints whatever use the cells may have,” said Mitchell, a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and an assistant professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

“Deriving stem cells from human embryos or aborted fetuses sacrifices one group of human beings for the use of other human beings. This is grotesque and unconscionable.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., called the NIH-backed research “illegal, immoral and unnecessary,” according to The Washington Post.

“We must fight to cure disease,” he said. “However, it is never acceptable to kill one innocent human being in order to help another. The responsible choice is for government to serve human life in ways that do not destroy life.”

Patient advocacy groups hailed the guidelines. Daniel Perry, chairman of the Patients’ Coalition for Urgent Research, which consists of 34 advocacy groups, said, “Too many patients and their families across the country are struggling with devastating illnesses, and we have an obligation to do all we can to help them,” The Post reported.

The NIH guidelines, which were released Dec. 1 and provide for 60 days of public comment, say the embryos eligible for federally funded research are to be left over from infertility treatment and are to be donated by patients without monetary inducement. There also is to be a “clear separation” between the generation of embryos through in vitro fertilization and the donation of the embryos for research.

The guidelines did not go as far as a presidential commission did earlier this year. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission recommended in July the actual derivation of the cells from embryos be federally funded.

The proposed guidelines are the latest development in a controversy that began in November 1998. At that time, two teams of scientists announced they had isolated stem cells for the first time. A team from the University of Wisconsin took stem cells from living embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic, while a Johns Hopkins University team obtained their cells from aborted babies.

Advocates of the research expressed hope the cells could be used ultimately for transplantation in treating such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, strokes and burns.

The month after the discovery of stem cells was announced, NIH 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.

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.”

In July, 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 that the prohibition applies to recently discovered stem-cell research that requires the destruction of such embryos. The signers also called 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 SBC’s seminaries and ethics agency: ERLC President Richard Land; 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.

“This is a momentous time, and the stakes are high,” said Mitchell, who called for Southern Baptists to express disapproval immediately to their members of Congress.

Written comments must be received at NIH by Jan. 31.