By Peter J. Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 8, 2009 ( – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has given embryonic stem-cell researchers the green light to apply for federal funding of their work with minimal restrictions under new guidelines that took effect July 7. However, the NIH rejected the overwhelming public input expressing concerns over the morally questionable research, which thus far has failed to yield any beneficial therapies, unlike adult stem-cells.

In a press release, the NIH states that the new guidelines “will ensure that NIH-funded research in this area is ethically responsible, scientifically worthy, and conducted in accordance with applicable law.” 

The NIH directives were a response to President Barack Obama's Executive Order (EO) 13505 that rescinded an earlier executive order from the Bush administration in 2001. That order prohibited federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, except for those stem-cell lines already in existence, and mandated voluntary informed consent without financial incentives on the part of the parents of human embryos.

Under the current NIH regulations, “voluntary and informed consent” on the part of the individuals donating their embryonic offspring becomes the overriding ethical principle, along with the specification that stem-cells derived from human embryos must have been created originally for “reproductive purposes” through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and not for the sake of scientific research. The NIH guidelines state that individuals donating their human embryos to research must give “voluntary written consent” without payment of any kind, and must be informed of the available options at the IVF facility.

However, outrage has erupted on other corners over the NIH dismissal of a public review of the draft of guidelines, as nearly 60 percent of respondents had vocalized their dismay with the decision to fund embryo-destroying stem cell research with taxpayer money. These ethical and moral concerns, however, were not taken into account.

Catholic News Service reports that approximately 30,000 out of 48,955 comments on the National Institutes of Health's draft guidelines expressed opposition to the federal funding of such research. NIH dismissed these concerns on the basis that they were “deemed not responsive to the question put forth.”

“We did not ask them whether to fund such funding, but how it should be funded,” asserted Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acting director of NIH, in a July 6 telephone briefing with the media.

“The comments of tens of thousands of Americans opposing the destruction of innocent human life for stem cell research were simply ignored in this process,” objected Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities in a statement. “Even comments filed by the Catholic bishops' conference and others against specific abuses in the draft guidelines were not addressed.”

Rigali points out that the NIH failed to eliminate specific abuses for what scientists do with the embryonic stem cells once they have obtained them. Although Sec. IV prohibits the introduction of human embryonic stem-cells into “primates,” that does not close the door on scientists looking to develop other “chimeras” or admixed inter-species embryos. It only prohibits their “breeding.”

“For example, federally funded researchers will be allowed to insert human embryonic stem cells into the embryos of animal species other than primates; federal grants will be available even to researchers who themselves destroyed human embryos to obtain the stem cells for their research,” protested Rigali. “Existing federal law against funding research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed is not given due respect here.”

Although human embryos are admittedly destroyed by extracting their stem-cells, the NIH stated that the annual appropriations ban on human embryo research, sec. 509, the Dickey Amendment, has consistently been interpreted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) “as not applicable to research using hESCs, because hESCs are not embryos as defined by Section 509.” The NIH points out that Congress has not challenged this interpretation since the HHS began funding ESC research in 2001.

The NIH states that IVF doctors and stem-cell researchers “should be different individuals” in order that donors remain free from undue influence, but that distinction will be just encouraged, not mandated under the guidelines, as the NIH predicted that in some cases “separation was not practicable.”

Prospective donors would also have to be informed that their embryos would be used to obtain their stem-cells for research, their embryos would be destroyed, that they could impart no restriction as to how their embryos were to be used or for whom they were used, and that they would not receive any direct medical benefit, or commercial benefit from the donation. 

In substance, the final guidelines from the NIH have minimal differences from the draft proposed earlier in April, and pro-life advocates have criticized them saying the human beings most effected – and least taken into account – by these guidelines are the human embryos themselves.

“The Obama Administration today slides further down the slippery slope of exploiting non-consenting members of the human species – human embryos,” stated Douglas Johnson, Legislative Director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).

Johnson pointed out that while the NIH will not fund the deliberate creation of human embryos specifically for research, “This seeming restraint is part of an incremental strategy intended to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes.”

Johnson stated the NRLC believes a “bait and switch” strategy is already in the works, whereby Congress will codify and extend the boundaries of stem-cell research in legislation that exceeds the scope of the two bills on embryonic stem-cell research bills that were both vetoed by President Bush in 2006 and 2007. Such a bill, NRLC contends, would include the creation of human embryo farms with embryos created or cloned specifically for research purposes.

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