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Suit filed to block funds for research on embryos

WASHINGTON (BP)–A lawsuit was filed against the federal government March 8 to block the funding of stem-cell research involving human embryos.

The suit against the Department of Health and Human Services and a subsidiary, the National Institutes of Health, contends NIH’s rules permitting funds for research that requires the destruction of human embryos are illegal, as well as “arbitrary and capricious.” The NIH guidelines, released in August, violate a congressional ban on funding of such research and ignore the evidence that cells derived from sources not requiring the destruction of human life are effective, the suit argues.

The suit was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia by Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a California agency that helps in the adoption of live human embryos in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics; the Christian Medical Association; David Prentice, an adult stem-cell researcher at Indiana State University; and adoptive or potentially adoptive parents of human embryos.

Lawyers for the parties said the next likely step is to seek a preliminary injunction to block the grant process by NIH. The deadline for grant applications is March 15. The action was taken at this point because of the realization researchers must possess stem cells, the master cells from which organs and tissues develop, derived with private funds before applying for federal funds for experimentation, the lawyers said. The human embryos, therefore, already are destroyed when the researchers submit their requests.

“This lawsuit represents thousands of conscientious doctors who follow the longstanding ethical principle of refusing to participate in or use research obtained through unethical means,” said David Stevens, executive director of the 14,000-member Christian Medical Association at a Capitol Hill news conference after the suit was filed. “Imagine being on the verge of uncovering cures for disease only to see your NIH grant denied because funds were redirected to unethical embryonic stem-cell research. The suit also represents loving, adoptive parents hoping to adopt cryo-preserved embryos — human beings waiting to be born who otherwise could be sacrificed in lethal research. How foolish it would be to create these tragedies when ethical avenues of stem-cell research are available.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., supporting the suit at the news conference, called the research approved by NIH “illegal, immoral and unnecessary. Human beings are not property, and research that results in the death of other human beings is deeply immoral, not only because of the immediate, grave evil that it perpetrates against the individual but also because it attacks the whole of our common humanity.”

Brownback expressed hope the suit would prove unnecessary, apparently by the Bush administration acting to repeal NIH guidelines adopted under President Clinton.

Pro-life advocates had hoped Bush would rescind the NIH rules endorsing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, but HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson recently announced a determination whether to retain the guidelines would not be made until the summer. In the meantime, researchers should continue to apply for funding, Thompson said.

In response to Thompson’s announcement, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations wrote Bush in early March asking him to clarify his position by repealing the NIH guidelines.

In a statement supportive of the March 8 suit, ERLC President Richard Land said, “… it is unfortunate to have to resort to legal action to get the government to do the right thing and necessary to get some movement on this urgent issue before more human embryos are destroyed. Killing human embryos in order to harvest their cells for research purposes, even for the medical benefit of other human beings, is the moral equivalent of biotech cannibalism in which we eat our own young to enhance our own health. Human embryos need adoptive families, not Frankenstein’s lab.”

Pro-life advocates overwhelmingly have opposed such experimentation on human embryos, because it requires their destruction. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow, because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources can be effective.

The isolation of stem cells for the first time in late 1998 provided hope for producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

But advocates of embryonic stem-cell research were dealt a serious blow on the same day the lawsuit was filed. A study using fetal stem cells in Parkinson’s disease patients failed to demonstrate a benefit and also had crippling side effects, according to The New York Times. The research results, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed the cells grew too much in about 15 percent of patients, causing them to jerk uncontrollably, according to The Times.

“Parkinson’s is a terrible illness and we all hope for a breakthrough, but not at any cost,” said Ben Mitchell, an ERLC consultant and a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill. “Not only is the derivation of human brain tissue from aborted fetuses unethical in and of itself, but the research indicates that its use is ineffective and, in some cases, a positive harm to patients.

“The results of the research can only be described as horrific,” Mitchell observed. “The first principle of moral medicine is ‘do no harm.’ While human subjects are always put at some risk in research, these risks are simply too great to justify continuing this research.

“While I do not doubt the sincerity of the researchers involved in this study, they have created a ‘little shop of horrors’ for some of the patients in their study,” Mitchell said. “We ought not do fetal tissue implantation, period. We’ve said this from the point of view of fetal life. Now we can argue it from the perspective of the patient.”

In August, NIH issued rules allowing federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life.

Mitchell said March 8, “If NIH thinks it can morally separate the act of killing human embryos for research and the act of doing that research, it is ethically challenged. We need to get this controversy behind us so we can focus more effectively on research using adult cells.”

Also on March 8, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an abortion advocacy group, endorsed embryonic stem-cell research.
Art Toalston contributed to this article.