Some members of a new federal advisory group on test-tupe babies began edging yesterday toward allowing American scientists to create human embryos for laboratory study.
The group is the Ethics Advisory Board of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In the wake of the birth in England seven weeks ago of Louise Brown, the world's first laboratory-conceived baby, the group must advise HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano:
First, whether the Fund the joining of human spern and female egg cells in laboratories to create growing embryos.
Second, whether it is wise yet to implant the resulting embroys in would-be mothers.
in interviews, some doctors and scientists on the 13-members board indicated-and in a few cases flatly stated that they would favor at least the first step to gain knowlege to help future children.
Dr. Eugene Zweiback, Omaha heart surgeon and the group's only doctor in private practice, went further. "I'm ready today," he said, to let qualified doctors begin placing test-tube embryos into mothers who cannot other wise bear children.
"I think the basic work has been done," he explained. "To my mind, withholding therapy is equally as wrong as permitting bad therapy."
But he predicted that the advisory board as a whole will "slowly" and "painfully" conclude that only the laboratory research should be permitted at the start.
Two scientists-Dr. Clifford Grobstein, biologist from the University of California at San Diego, and Dr. Barton Childs, Johns Hopkins pediatrician-advocated such research yesterday.
"WE cannot maintain a haed-in-the-sand policy." of think the United States can "control advancing world knowledge or its application," Grobstein maintained.
Also, he said, "it is scientifically defensible" to say a new embryo must grow to "sentient awareness"-when it has nerve and brain tissue and can feel-before it becames a "human being" and can be longer be as freely studied.
A new embryo is indeed "lief", he said, but so are the sperm and the egg cells even before they are joined. Both they are new embryos are not human "beings" but "human materials," he argued, and should be handled with respect but need not be protected or preserved like human beings, and may be studied to benefit, others.
However, they should not be allowed to survive in the laboratory long enough to become feeling creatures, he said. Nerve tissue begins to form after four to six weeks, he reported. He said the board and the public need to do more thinking before saying just how long an embryo should be allowed to develop for study.
Said another member. Dr. Robert Murray. Howard University medical genetics chief:
"What I've heard so far would lead me to believe that a reasonable cutoff"-a point after which studies might not continue-would be "at implantation time," when after 14 days's growth a new embryo normally attaches itself to the womb. Then "further study would determine whether we should go farther."
Dr. Donald Henderson, Johns Hopkins public health dean, said he is "still exploring," but agrees with Grostein that the United States "cannot live in isolation." Dr. Mitchell Spellman, Harvard Surgeon and dean for medical services, said he agreed with "Cliff Grobstein's approach."
Other members, including the Rev. Richard McCormick of Georgetown University, one of the world's leading medical ethicists, are known to have reservations.