An array of scientific and other witnesses joined House health leader Paul Rogers yesterday to urge an end to a federal moratorium on test-tube fertilization of human eggs.
The three-year-old Department of Health, Education and Welfare refusal to sponsor even basic laboratory research in which human ova and sperm are joined has had a "chilling effect" on all progress, said Charles McCarthy, executive director of a new HEW Ethics Advisory Board which will soon consider recommending an end to the ban.
Though the moratorium covers only HEW-funded research, many authorities says its effect has been to dry up all efforts. HEW funds most of the nation's medical research, and its rules strongly influence hospitals' ethics committees.
McCarthy remained neutral on whether the ban should continue. But Dr. Joseph Schulman, chief of a human genetics section at HEW's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said every year of delay in developing test-tube fertilization will mean "thousands" more couples must remain childless.
A second federal official - Dr. John Fletcher, assistant for bioethics to the director of the Clinical Center or research hospital at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda - likewise urged an end to the ban.
The possible benefits of research on laborartory fertilization of human ova, or egg cells, "appear at this point to outweight" any evidence of possible harm or violation of ethical and religious values, said Fletcher, who is an Episcopal minister.
No witness at a hearing before Rep. Rogers' House Commerce subcommittee presented the view of some Catholic authorities that test-tube fertilization to produce human babies may be immoral.
Florida Democrat Rogers argued that it is not immoral but "pro-life" to provide an infertile married couple with their own baby, even though the husband's sperm and wife's ovum are joined outside the womb Catholic and allied forces commonly use the term "pro-life" to argue against destroying babies in abortions.
Fletcher argued that there is a moral obligation to relieve suffering, and infertility cause "great" suffering for many would-be parents.
Dr. Walter Wadlington, University of Virginia law professor, said, "I take the position that if we have the technology it will be used." "Placing policemen in the laboratory" to prevent test-tube fertilization would be as wrong as placing "policemen in bedrooms" to monitor behavior he said.
He argued that the federal government and states should develop a model state law, however, to clarify any legal problems that arise in a test-tube era.
Dr. Benjamin Brackett of the University of Pennsylvania called for far more research on both human and animal fertilization in the laboratory. Brackett has successfully fertilized rabbit ova and implanted them into female that bore healthy bunnies.
There should not be extension of the method to actual human patients Brackett said, until both animal and human research prove that it will not produce defective offspring - and until "society" debates human test-tube fertilization and decides to allow it.
The new HEW othics board will meet in September to consider an end of the HEW moritorium. But Rogers and another of his witnesses. Senate health subcommittee chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), urged establishment of a presidential commission to advise on all ethical problems in medicine, rather than a mere HEW advisory board.
The Senate has already passed a bill sponsored by Kennedy to establish such a commission to oversee all federal agencies. A Rogers bill would create a commission having less power, but enough in his opinion, to give advice with a presidential commission's authority.