WASHINGTON—The National Institutes of Health is scrambling to write directives to get around the current ban on research on live human embryos, a pro-life group said.

The agency is writing new rules in the wake of research which shows the potential to grow new tissues from embryonic cells.

“The real problem with the National Institutes of Health rewriting the rules so that they can evade the ban on using live human embryos in federally funded research is that it further devalues human life,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

Johnson told the Register that the health agency, which is the federal government's principal biomedical research arm, would release a report sometime this month, and there would only be a 60-day period to respond to it.

Use of federal funds for embryonic research was banned four years ago by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The law specifically forbids the use of such funds for research that harms or manipulates live human embryos, or the creation of human embryos exclusively for research purposes.

However, because privately funded stem-cell research has made scientific headway, the health agency would like to get federal money to further its own stem-cell work.

Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the researchers are not only showing disregard for human life but for the current law.

“The NIH is so confident that it is willing to put a thumb in the eye of both the president and Congress, as it moves to fund experiments that many members of Congress thought they had banned,” he told the Register.

During the first week of gestation, embryonic stem cells form within human embryos. The stem cell is the first building block of all tissue and organ development.

Stem-cell research involves isolating these cells during this early period of life and directing them to form various tissues of the human body. Researchers hope then to be able to transplant the new cells into patients to replace diseased or damaged tissues. Harvesting stem cells in this way, however, kills the human embryo.

‘a principle that researchersare always tempted to do: to offer that harm can be done here and now to benefit others in the future.’

Alternate Techniques

In recent months there have been reports of new techniques for stem cells that do not lead to the destruction of human embryos.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Dr. Jonas Frisen and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, isolated adult brain stem cells that divided. Researchers are hoping that these cells can be used as a treatment for damaged neural tissues in patients with Parkinson's disease. Frisen added that the use of the patient's own stem cell would also avoid both “the ethical and immunological problems.”

In December, Ruth Larson, science editor of the Washington Times, explained that doctors are now able to use an anti-aging enzyme, telomerase, to rejuvenate certain cells in the body which “opens up a dazzling array of possibilities.”

Yet, despite the known advances in adult stem cell research, the National Institutes of Health is pushing for the use of live human embryos.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the agency, testified in the Senate last December that the development of cell lines was “an unprecedented scientific breakthrough.” He added, “It is not too unrealistic to say that this research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life.”

(Varmus’ spokesman, Donald Ralbovsky, refused comment for this article.)

At the same hearing, Doerflinger, the associate director of the bishops’ pro-life secretariat, said that the moral problems and the destruction of human embryos “is independent of any possible benefit expected from such research.”

He added that “from the time of the Nuremberg Code, ethical norms on human experimentation have demanded that we never inflict death or disabling injury on any nonconsenting individual of the human species simply for the sake of benefit to others.”

In its 1987 instruction Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life”), the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said, “Experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit. No objective, even though noble in itself, such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses, whether viable or not, either inside or outside the mother's womb.”

Doerflinger told the Register that it is “a principle that researchers are always tempted to do: to offer that harm can be done here and now to benefit others in the future.”

Theresa Wagner, legal analyst for the Family Research Council, asked whether science is going to be “in the service of human beings or are human beings going to be in the service of science?”

“This is Tuskegee, Ala., all over again when experiments were performed on terminally ill black men without their permission,” Wagner said. “The justification at that time was that they were going to die anyway. The first and last question must be, ‘Are these human beings?’ … That's all we need to know. Embryos are human beings and they must be protected.”

Ellen Pearson writes from Alexandria, Virginia.