WASHINGTON — The fight over stem-cell research funding is far from over.

Although it seems the pro-life cause lost a battle when President Obama signed an executive order for federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research, a new battle looms.

That battle may decide whether to create human embryos solely for the sake of medical experiments, putting them at risk of death.

Responding to the executive order, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued draft guidelines in mid-April that have alarmed pro-life activists seeking to maintain a ban on practices that permit the creation and killing of human embryos solely for research or that employ cloned human embryos.

At present, the NIH guidelines only address the use of stem cells derived from human embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures at fertility clinics. NIH officials describe the proposed rules governing the informed consent by donors as an attempt to “ensure that NIH-funded research in this area is ethically responsible, scientifically worthy, and conducted in accordance with applicable law.”

But pro-life activists and bioethics experts on Capitol Hill assert that the NIH guidelines raise serious questions about the direction of federal policy regarding embryonic stem-cell research. Critics also contend that the guidelines governing the “informed consent” of donors do not fully address the range of ethical issues likely to surface as parents consider donating their embryos to science.

Instead of establishing a transparent, “ethically responsible” approach to cutting-edge research, pro-life leaders believe the proposed guidelines actually signal a worrisome new development — the advancement of a stealth strategy to overturn the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. That amendment prohibits “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”; this language has been employed to limit creation of new stem-cell lines.

Though researchers using adult stem cells have produced a string of cures and scientists can obtain embryo-like pluripotent stem cells through the reprogramming of adult stem cells, many politicians, patients’ advocates, and scientists still clamor for more expansive federal guidelines and funding for embryonic stem-cell research. In the past, the majority of Americans have endorsed this campaign, in part, because they believe “spare” embryos would otherwise be discarded as “medical waste.”


‘Stealth Attack’

Now, Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, contends that the NIH guidelines have altered the moral calculus that once secured broad support for an illicit practice. “Despite supporters’ constant claim that this agenda involves only embryos that ‘would otherwise be discarded,’ the guidelines provide that the option of donating embryonic children for destructive research will be offered to parents alongside all other options, including those allowing the embryos to live,” he said.

He added that the guidelines allow destruction of newly created embryos that were never frozen, increasing the prospects for a rushed and biased consent process on the part of parents using IVF.

Rep. John Fleming, D-La., a physician and an opponent of embryo-killing stem-cell research, is concerned about the “vague” language employed in the guidelines to address a variety of ethical problems — including conflicts of interest that will inevitably surface when research “occurs under the same roof as fertility treatment.”

The NIH should insist on a clear “separation between the fertility clinics and the researchers who want the embryos,” said Fleming. “What will prohibit the stem-cell researchers from pressuring the fertility doctors to ‘encourage’ the donation of more embryos?”

However, the NIH guidelines also present a much larger problem for pro-life activists. “The draft guidelines repeatedly refer to the limitations imposed by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” noted Fleming. “It looks like the amendment has a big target sign on it, inviting congressional action. We need to be prepared for a stealth attack on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment as Congress moves through the annual appropriations process.”

Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee has already alerted his network of activists to prepare for a political battle that could stay under the radar of most Americans.

Some news reports on the NIH guidelines suggested that the status quo on stem-cell research has remained essentially unchanged. But Johnson notes that Obama’s March 9 statements and directives “made no reference to limiting NIH to the use of stem cells taken from ‘leftover’ embryos, or limiting NIH to the use of embryos created through IVF.”


Democratic Dominance

Indeed, the Democrats’ dominance on Capitol Hill has encouraged advocates to set more aggressive goals.

“I am pleased to see the NIH has moved quickly to draft the guidelines required by the executive order; however, I believe there is opportunity for more expansive guidelines,” said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., a co-sponsor of legislation designed to increase federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

Most likely, the cloning of human embryos for research purposes is on the horizon, though the NIH guidelines skirted this contentious subject. Johnson points to a March 20 article in Science that acknowledges that many scientists “would like to work with [stem-cell] lines created through research cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer,” an alternative cloning process.

As pro-life activists in Washington position themselves for the political battle ahead, they have gained an appreciation for Obama’s adept management of a difficult issue. The decision to give NIH responsibility for developing new guidelines, they contend, allows the president to keep a hot-button topic at arm’s length, while asserting that scientific inquiry — not political calculation — guides federal policy.

“I am beginning to understand the president’s reason for giving NIH the responsibility to design the rules. They are crafted wisely from their point of view,” explained Yuval Levin, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“The guidelines allow everything that is already being done and do nothing to prevent future developments,” said Levin. “For the moment, there is no need to explicitly address research using cloned embryos, for example, because they are trying not to get ahead of the science. But as science changes, the rules can be changed.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes

from Chevy Chase, Maryland.