WASHINGTON—Pro-lifers say the National Institutes of Health is trying to make an end-run around laws banning federal funding of embryo research.

New guidelines, if approved, will allow the NIH, the principal biomedical research arm of the federal government, to fund research in which living embryos are obtained from fertility clinics.

According to the guidelines, researchers would seek pre-approval from the NIH for research on human embryos. Once approved, the researchers would make arrangements with fertility clinics to obtain embryos, which the research would then destroy.

Since 1996, federal law has prohibited federal funds from being used for research “in which human embryos are created for research purposes or destroyed, discarded or subjected to greater than minimal risk.”

Though the experiments would be directed from start to finish by the NIH, the guidelines would allow the NIH to deny that it actually funds the destruction of embryos.

National Right to Life Committee spokesman Doug Johnson said the new guidelines are equivalent to someone who isn't allowed to ship over bridges hiring a trucker and saying, “When you drive over the bridge, you're on your own time.”

Added Johnson, “Everything that precedes and follows the killing of the embryos is federally approved and federally funded, and it is a transparent and shameful pretense for the administration to claim that the killing itself is not federally sponsored.”

Richard Doerflinger, point man on life policy issues for the U.S. bishops, said that what can't be done “is to commission the destroying of embryos for the specific purpose of providing raw material for research.”

He added: “Up until now, the federal government has never provided funding for in vitro fertilization or experiments on embryos in laboratories. This will be its first foray into the field.”

The NIH guidelines say embryo research, particularly that which involves multiuse (pluripotent) “stem” cells, “promises new treatments and possible cures for many debilitating diseases and injuries, including Parkinson's, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns and spinal cord injuries.”

The guidelines also “recommend procedures to help ensure that NIH-funded human pluripotent stem cell research is conducted in an ethical and legal manner.”

Stem cells, which can renew themselves and become different kinds of cells needed by the body, are obtained from embryos after they are destroyed. Doerflinger insisted that stem cells can be ethically obtained from adults.

The NIH guidelines continue: “NIH understands and respects the ethical, legal and social issues relevant to human pluripotent stem cell research and is sensitive to the need to subject it to oversight more stringent than that associated with the traditional NIH scientific peer review process.”

But opponents of research involving embryos were not satisfied with the cautionary language of the statement.

According to Doerflinger, the new guidelines, if approved, will provide incentives for people to donate embryos for research.

“I don't think there is any way to avoid the idea that this research agenda will provide a further incentive to donate embryos for destruction,” he warned. “The argument will be made that this is a way to bring medical benefit about. Women will have an altruistic reason [to donate human embryos].”

Like Doerflinger, Johnson fears that things could get worse if the guidelines are approved.

He cited a September document by President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Board which criticizes the NIH guidelines for not seeking to end the ban on federal embryo research.

The document said that separating cell research from the destruction of embryos “rests on the mistaken notion that the two areas of research are so distinct that participating in one need not mean participating in the other.” To solve the inconsistency, the board advises pushing for an end to the ban.

Asked to comment on the fact that pro-life organizations such as the Family Research Council have called the new NIH guidelines a legal sleight of hand, agency spokesman Marc Stern directed the Register to the NIH Web site.

“We're only saying what's on the site,” he said. “Obviously the agency doesn't agree that this is a sleight of hand in any way.”

Stern said the draft guidelines are posted “for 60 days of public comment” from Dec. 1. Anyone, Stern added, may comment on the draft before it becomes final.

National Right to Life's Doug Johnson said the new NIH guidelines and the statement by the bioethics advisory committee represent an unprecedented violation of scientific and medical ethics.

“These guidelines [would] violate established principles on experiments on nonconsenting human subjects,” Johnson said. “[The embryos] are living human beings. This is the first time the federal government is proposing to sponsor the killing of human beings to do federally funded research.”

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The National Institutes for Health Web site for comments is www.nih.gov/news/stemcell/ draftguidelines.htm