STEM CELLS: NIH Says Embryo Research Ban Does Not Apply
"In a decision likely to ignite a firestorm among abortion foes," National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Harold Varmus announced yesterday that the agency has determined that research on embryonic stem cells does not violate the government's ban on human embryo research. Stem cells are believed to hold tremendous potential in "treating a wide range of disorders" from Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries and heart disease, the Los Angeles Times reports. Varmus said that NIH's legal team concluded that stem cell research does not violate the ban because the cells "do not have the capacity to develop into a human being" (Cimons, 1/20). Varmus said that scientists "cannot use federal dollars to obtain new cells by destroying embryos or creating human clones." They can, however, "[w]ork on obtaining cells from the tissue of aborted fetuses ... because it does not involve an embryo's destruction." Varmus' ethical distinctions immediately came under fire from pro-life groups. Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops commented, "The method of obtaining the cells is lethal to the embryo. The fact that NIH will not fund the act of destruction itself seems secondary" (Mcfarling, Detroit Free Press, 1/20).
Pros And Cons
The decision was lauded by groups that believe the federal ban on embryo research is impeding important medical advances. Alliance for Aging Research Executive Director Daniel Perry called the announcement "historic." He said, "It is vitally important that the view expressed by Dr. Varmus today should prevail in federal policy. If that view does prevail, it is likely many of the best prepared and best equipped research scientists in the nation will move quickly to begin revealing new insights into human cell biology" (AAR release, 1/19). Pro-life activists were outraged at the NIH decision. The Washington Post notes that the NIH's move makes it "a reluctant participant in the nation's long-running battle over abortion rights and embryo research." Varmus noted that because of an excess supply of stem cells, the decision "would not drive or increase the use of either in vitro fertilization or abortion for research purposes" (Weiss, 1/20). However, Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) said, "Today's announcement ... is the latest step by the Clinton administration to treat human beings as property to be manipulated and destroyed." He added that the NIH decision would allow scientists to "experiment with cells obtained from human beings ruthlessly killed in the first weeks of life." Smith would not say if he had plans to block the NIH move in Congress, and Varmus said he had no knowledge of any organized congressional opposition (AP/Reuters/CNN, 1/19). The bishop conference's Doerflinger added, "They will destroy the embryos with private funds and experiment on the tissue with public funds" (Wade, New York Times, 1/20). HHS said that the NIH "won't finance any studies until it develops guidelines for the controversial research and convenes a special committee to review all such proposals" (Sharpe, Wall Street Journal, 1/20).