WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 11, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Critics of embryo stem-cell research say their worst fears are proving true, after a team of Virginia fertility researchers reportedly created human embryos for the specific purpose of destroying them to obtain stem cells.
Douglas Johnson, a spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee, told the New York Times, “Those who have advocated destructive embryonic stem cell research have been assuring people and assuring President Bush that they only want to kill the so-called leftover embryos. This report shows how phony those assurances are.”
“This is really ghoulish, a ghoulish exercise they´ve engaged in,” added Johnson, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
If Bush approves federal funding for research with “spare” embryos, Johnson said, then scientists in time will demand funding to create embryos for research.
“Once the federal government abandons the principle that it will not collaborate in embryo destruction, it has no principled basis for refusing to support these further outrages,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
News of the Virginia experiment, which was legal and used no federal funds, comes at a crucial moment. Within weeks, President George W. Bush is expected to announce whether the federal government will fund medical research using embryo stem cells.
Several experts said the report, from researchers at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Virginia, appeared to be the first published account of scientists producing embryos only to harvest their stem cells.
They said other teams had probably created embryos for various research purposes, but the practice is not widely discussed because of possible public backlash. The report appears in the July issue of the journal Fertility & Sterility.
Embryonic stem cells can grow into any type of cell in the body, and scientists hope to guide the cells to become replacement tissue for patients. But pro-life groups say the research is equivalent to murder because human embryos are destroyed in the process of obtaining stem cells.
To date, scientists have obtained stem cells from embryos donated by fertility patients. These patients often create more embryos than needed in the course of trying to have a child.
The government is also considering these “spare” fertility clinic embryos as a source of stem cells should Bush allow a funding plan. In lobbying the Bush administration, many scientists and research advocates have argued that it is more ethical to use these embryos in research than to have them discarded or frozen indefinitely, as patients usually do. They have noted that under National Institutes of Health (NIH) rules, no embryos would be created for the federally funded research.
“Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos [for research] . . . or to let them be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?” asked Christopher Reeve, the actor and a research supporter, in testimony before the Senate last year.
Now, the Jones Institute researchers are adding a new wrinkle to the ethical calculation behind embryo cell research.
In their report, the scientists say they solicited eggs and sperm from paid donors and used them to create 110 fertilized eggs. Forty matured to the stage where stem cells usually develop, though the scientists successfully isolated and cultured cells from only three of them.
Explaining why the research was conducted, the institute´s ethics advisers said, “It was our duty to provide humankind with the best understanding of early human development.” But the work was criticized by people on both sides of the stem cell debate.
Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the experiment “shows the slippery slope in action. Once clinics get used to the idea of research on spare embryos, they will become desensitized enough to consider creating embryos solely to be destroyed.”
Some supporters of embryo cell research criticized the Virginia report as well.
“It seems an unnecessary step, and it certainly raises the ante politically,” Alexander Capron, a University of Southern California professor of law and medicine, told the Los Angeles Times. “It suggests that the scientists themselves don´t see a reason to abstain from something that seems of marginal medical utility, and which is much more problematic ethically, and is therefore certain to inflame people” who oppose embryo cell research.
“This is not good timing,” said Dr. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a Massachusetts company working with stem cells and related materials. “They´re throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Others said the new report showed that Bush should support federal funding because it would bring much embryo research under federal ethics and public disclosure rules, the Los Angeles Times said.
Unless he proposes a change in federal law, Bush´s decision would not bar researchers from repeating the Jones Institute experiment. Even if he prohibits federal funding for the work, research in the private sector would remain untouched. No federal law bars the creation of embryos for research purposes, though some states have sought to regulate the practice.
Barnes also noted what he thinks is a weakness in the “spare” embryo argument: “Surplus embryos from fertility clinics will only be ´discarded,´ the media say, so why not exploit them for medical research on Parkinson´s and other diseases? The truth is many leftover embryos have been adopted and implanted in women who couldn´t otherwise conceive. In fact, 18 [U.S.] House members last week wrote Bush, asking him to meet with three children, two of them twins, who ´used to be frozen embryos residing at in vitro fertilization clinics.´”
Federal panels have taken different views of the creation of embryos for federally funded research. The practice was endorsed by an advisory panel to the Department of Health and Human Services after the 1978 birth of the world´s first “test tube baby,” said Ronald Green, an ethics professor at Dartmouth College. But President Ronald Reagan and Bush´s father, George H. Bush, never put the policy into practice.
In 1994, a special panel of the NIH also endorsed the creation of embryos in limited circumstances for federally funded research, but President Bill Clinton rejected the idea. More recently, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, created by Clinton, considered the idea but did not endorse it.
When the NIH last year issued guidelines for the first-ever federal grants for embryo cell research, it said the cells could come only from embryos donated by fertility patients.
The Bush administration put the NIH funding plan on hold this year, pending a review. Bush has said he will announce a decision soon on whether to start or withdraw the funding plan, but he has not announced a timetable.