A federal Ethics Advisory Board unanimously recommended yesterday that the government end a long moratorium on funding of any efforts to start human life in the laboratory.
The board voted to tell the secretary of health, education and welfare that both basic research and the actual creation of so-called test-tube babies -- embryos that start life in a laboratory dish -- are ethically acceptable, if the final goal is to produce children for husbands and wives who are otherwise unable to produce them.
Also, said the board, research that merely joins human sperm and ova to create laboratory embryos can be acceptable, even if the new embryo is then destroyed.
This can be permissible, the board said, if the aim is either to learn to implant such embroys safely in natural mothers, or to gain "important scientific information" about the ways human babies start to develop.
The board did not tell HEW whether or not it should actually fund such research. It said HEW and Congress should set federal research priorities in the light of many competing demands.
But the board's recommendations give at least one high-level body's ethical approval to both the creation and termination of life in the laboratory.
And these recommendations will now go to HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr., a strong foe of ending fetal life by abortion.
The chairman of the 13-member board, named by Califano last year, is James Gaither, a San Francisco attorney and personal friend of Califano's, Other board members include Dr. David Hamburg, president of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences; Dr. Sissela Bok, Harvard University medical ethicist; Maurice Lazarus, executive of Boston's Federated Department Stores, and other doctors, scientists and citizens.
The creation of some "embryonic fe without any hope" of transfer to a mother, with certain "eventual death" for these growing clumps of human cells, was called "the most difficult" matter that faced the board by its most prominent Roman Catholic member. This was the Rev. Richard McCormick, one of the nation's leading moral theologians and a professor at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute.
Still, McCormick and every other board member decided that such sacrifices may be necessary if doctors are to learn to implant such embryos safely.
McCormick nonetheless insisted on inserting into the committee's recommendations a statement recognizing that many persons have ethical objections to such research, and that the board did not find these objections insubstantial though it finally decided that such efforts are "ethically defensible."
The board also said no embryo should be sustained in the laboratory for more than 14 days, "the stage normally associated with the completion of implantation" inside the womb.
The board agreed, too, that the government should not fund any creation of "test-tube" babies in routine medical practice, but only laboratory research and "clinical trials," tests of the method in consenting mothers.
The board decided not to tell Califano whether or not HOW should actually fund some such research and trials because it felt that determining HEW research priorities was beyond its current resources.
Any such research should have a low priority, however, among all federal research needs, McCormick and four medical members agreed. In fact, said McCormick, "my own opinion" is that research at this point, because of greater priorities.
But Dr. Donald Henderson, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said at least some such research should be funded, and both Hamburg and board chairman Gaither said such research might suddenly become "high priority" if doctors all over the country start using the method, or if it starts producing malformed babies.
The board's action is the latest step in a process that started when Congress -- concerned by news that scientists were doing experiments involving live human fetuses, products of abortion -- clamped a temporary ban on all fetal research in 1974. That ban did not deal directly with test-tube baby research, but it cast a chill on any such efforts using human ova and sperm, though such work has continued in animals.
The fetal research ban was ended in 1975, though fetal research is now permitted only under very limited conditions. Test-tube baby research remained in limbo, and HEW said it would fund none until it get a recommendation from an ethics advisory board that did not then exist.
That board was not named until list June, and it soon began deliberations and hearings on the test-tube baby issue. Much of the opposition has come from the same "right-to-life" groups that oppose abortions, largely on the ground that some living embryos would be sacrificed.
The Catholic Church has so far taken no official stand on the issue, though many priests and some bishops have spoken in opposition -- and a few in favor.
The board has heard, finally, frommany infertile couples who would like to have a test-tube baby, and especially want one since the birth of two such babies in Britain last year.
There is only one application currently before HEW to do federallyfunded research joining human spermand ova -- that of Dr. Pierre Soupart of Vanderbilt University. It has been pending since 1975, and now, said the board, should be reexamined.