In June of 1993, a Democrat-dominated Congress lifted former President Ronald Reagans 1980 ban on federal support for research on human embryos. Previously, scientists had to use private funds if they wanted to study spare embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. This effectively curtailed laboratory experimentation on fertilized eggs. With the legal roadblocks removed, Uncle Sam, in the guise of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), now can pick up the tab for such research.
During 1994, a special NIH panel met to formulate funding guidelines. Following the lead of several other countries, the panel gave the green light for work on embryos until the fourteenth day. Embryos could come from IVF procedures, or could be produced specifically for research purposes. Either approach creates serious ethical problems, because it is extremely unlikely that the embryos in these experiments will be implanted after the two-week limit; they will die in the lab.
Fortunately, thirty-five congressmen, led by Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.), have taken the initiative in challenging NIH policies. Congress has not examined these initiatives, they reminded NIH Director Harold Varmus in a June 16 letter, and the American people are largely unaware that the NIH is even contemplating using their tax dollars to fund such bizarre experiments on living human embryos. In particular, many conservatives were incensed that human embryos could be created specifically for research.
Apparently these concerns, bolstered by a change of guard on Capitol Hill, spurred President Bill Clinton to action. On December 2, 1994only hours after the NIH accepted its panels guidelinesClinton announced the following: I do not believe that federal funds should be used to support the creation of human embryos for research purposes, and I have directed that NIH not allocate any resources for such research.
Thankfully, also, the panel advised against support for research on more advanced embryos, and ruled twinning and nuclear cloning unacceptable. However, comments from various panel members suggest that they did not base their decisions on ethical absolutes. Rather, they weighed pragmatic considerations against the feelings of people out there, to use the words of panelist Pamela Davis. The scope of eligible research may change when feelings change. Further, the policies adopted by NIH are guidelines, not laws or rules, and are limited to federally funded projects.
Even this is no guarantee of compliance. In early December, National Public Radio revealed the results of an inquiry by George Washington University into the controversial cloning work of Robert Stillman and Jerry Hall. Although not conducted with federal funds, Stillman and Halls project had not received timely approval from a review board, and they did not obtain informed consent from embryo donors. Clearly, there is no room for complacency.
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