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CURRENT ISSUE:  April 27, 2009
VOL. 47, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
International relief facing downturn
Parishes invited to work on environment through promises of St. Francis covenant
Comments begin on NIH draft
guidelines on stem cell research

WASHINGTON (CNS) — By proposing to allow the use of federal funds for stem-cell research on embryos created for reproductive purposes at in vitro fertilization clinics and later discarded, the National Institutes of Health opens “a new chapter in divorcing biomedical research from its necessary ethical foundation,” said Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia April 21.

“Without unconditional respect for the life of each and every member of the human race, research involving human subjects does not represent true progress,” said the cardinal, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “It becomes another way for some human beings to use and mistreat others for their own goals.”

Dr. Raynard S. Kington is acting director of the National Institutes of Health.
Cardinal Rigali was commenting on draft guidelines for embryonic stem-cell research issued April 17 by acting NIH director Dr. Raynard S. Kington.

Although Kington said he believed the draft guidelines reflect “broad support in the public and in the scientific community,” he said he expected much of the public comment on them to focus on ethical concerns. A 30-day period of public comment was to begin with publication of the draft guidelines in the Federal Register, which had not occurred by April 21.

The draft guidelines set seven requirements for informed consent in cases when embryos created for reproductive purposes are later donated for use in research:

• “All options pertaining to use of embryos no longer needed for reproductive purposes” have been explained to the potential donors.

• No inducements were offered for the donation.

• The health care facility has a policy in place to assure that quality of care is not affected by a decision to donate or not to donate.

• There is clear separation between the decision to create the embryos and the decision to donate them.

• Consent was obtained at the time of donation and donors were informed they could revoke consent at any time.

• When possible, the physician responsible for reproductive care of the donor is not the person who will perform the research.

• Written consent must include nine separate elements contained in the guidelines, including an acknowledgment that the research could have commercial potential that would not benefit the donor.

The guidelines drew support from a group of evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders and scholars as “a common-ground approach that respects life at every stage,” but were opposed by a Catholic congressman who co-chairs the House Pro-Life Caucus and by the National Right to Life Committee.

Cardinal Rigali said it was “noteworthy that, despite calls for an even broader policy by some in Congress and the research community, the draft guidelines do not allow federally funded stem-cell research using embryos specially created for research purposes by in vitro fertilization or cloning.”

“We can hope that NIH and Congress will continue to respect this ethical norm, and will realize that the alleged ‘need’ for violating it is more implausible than ever due to advances in reprogramming adult cells to act like embryonic stem cells,” he said.

But he warned that some might “pursue a more extreme policy” and urged “other concerned citizens” to join with the bishops in writing to Congress and the Obama administration “about the need to restore and maintain barriers against the mistreatment of human life in the name of science.”

The draft guidelines specifically ban funding “for research using embryonic stem cells derived from other sources, including somatic cell nuclear transfer, parthenogenesis and/or IVF embryos created for research purposes.”

Also prohibited is funding of research in which stem cells “are introduced into nonhuman primate blastocysts” or research “involving the breeding of animals where the introduction of human embryonic stem cells or human-induced pluripotent stem cells may have contributed to the germ line.”

Kington said research on adult stem cells and induced pluripotent cells — which do not require the destruction of human embryos — will continue to receive NIH funding.

“We have a substantial investment in that area and we have been excited about the developments in recent years,” he said.

Catholics praising the draft guidelines included Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University; Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America; Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University; and Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University.

Schneck said aspects of the NIH plan are “clearly a major step toward the common ground most Americans are now demanding.”

Kmiec called it “a very positive sign that President (Barack) Obama has been listening — as he promised — to the heightened claims of conscience posed by Catholics in the modern medical environment.”

But Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a leading pro-life member of Congress and a Catholic, said the new federal funding “will likely detract from the noncontroversial treatments that are already changing lives” through research involving adult stem cells and cord blood.

“Assertions that leftover embryos are better off dead so that their stem cells can be derived is dehumanizing and cheapens human life,” Smith said. “There is no such thing as leftover human life.”

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, warned in an April 17 statement that the draft guidelines might be “part of an incremental strategy intended to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes.”

“We believe that today’s action may be part of a ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy, under which Democratic leaders in Congress will suddenly bring up new legislation that they will claim codifies today’s NIH action, but which will in fact authorize further expansions involving the deliberate creation of human embryos for use in research, by human cloning and other methods,” Johnson added.

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