In a move expected to trigger a legislative battle when Congress returns next month, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has launched a bill that would lift the Bush administration's ban on government funding of research on fetal tissue transplantation.
Many scientists strongly oppose the government's indefinite moratorium on funding such research, which is considered to hold great promise in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other disorders. The administration contends that if fetal tissue transplants were found to help people with such diseases, more women would be motivated to have abortions.
The bill, which will become part of a legislative package reauthorizing National Institutes of Health programs, would go well beyond lifting the moratorium. It would give the NIH permanent authority to fund such research, as long as it complied with strict ethical guidelines.
And it would prohibit the secretary of Health and Human Services from refusing on ethical grounds to fund any kind of scientifically valid research, unless a special ethics advisory panel agreed that the research was unethical. In the case of fetal tissue transplantation, HHS Secretary Louis W. Sullivan decided last year to extend the ban indefinitely, even though such a panel had voted overwhelmingly to recommend lifting it.
"We should not hold greater reverence for dead tissue than for living people," said Waxman in introducing the bill earlier this month. "And we should not resign our public health responsibilities in favor of public rhetoric."
Antiabortion legislators are expected to strenuously oppose the move. No comparable provision has been included in the Senate version of the NIH reauthorization bill, so if the measure were passed by the House, its fate would have to be decided by a conference committee.
"If Mr. Waxman interjects this contentious issue into the NIH bill at this late stage of the session, the likely result will be to kill NIH reauthorization for this year," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. Congress is supposed to pass a law reauthorizing the NIH every three years, but Johnson noted that political issues have often delayed the legislation in the past.
The moratorium began in March 1988 under the Reagan administration. It prohibits government funding only for research involving fetal tissue that is obtained from induced abortions in order to be transplanted into humans. The NIH is still allowed to fund research in which human fetal tissue is transplanted into animals or is used to obtain human cells, proteins, hormones or other body components.
The NIH spent about $7.3 million last year, or one-tenth of one percent of its budget, to fund about 85 such projects, according to a spokesman.
Under the Waxman bill, the NIH would be permitted to fund fetal tissue transplant research as long as it conformed to a set of conditions suggested by the 1988 ethics panel.
For example, "directed donations," in which a woman specified the identity of the tissue recipient, would be forbidden, and the donor would be prohibited from learning the recipient's identity. Donors would also have to sign a statement that their decision to have an abortion was separate and unrelated to the decision to donate tissue from their fetuses for research.
Sale of human fetal tissue would remain prohibited, as it is under current law. Patients receiving the tissue and scientists participating in the research would have to be informed that the tissue had been obtained through an abortion.
In perhaps the most far-reaching portion of the bill, the HHS secretary would be prohibited from withholding government funding for research that had been approved by routine scientific and ethical review committees, unless he appointed a special ethics panel that found the research was unethical.
The provision is designed to prevent the kind of impasse that has developed over fetal tissue transplant research, in which the funding ban has continued despite the ethics panel's contrary recommendation.
Waxman said earlier this month that the ban has created "policy questions on censorship, chilling of research and scientific freedom."
Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said the provision would unduly infringe on the HHS secretary's authority. "If Secretary Sullivan discovered the Tuskegee experiment today, he couldn't stop it, if this was the law," he said. "He'd have to get somebody else's permission to stop it."
The Tuskegee experiment in the 1930s was a government-funded project in which scientists refrained from treating a group of black syphilis patients with penicillin so that they could study the natural course of the disease. Public outrage over the project provided part of the impetus for modern laws protecting research subjects.
An HHS spokesman last week declined to comment on the Waxman bill, saying, "We have not seen it." However, the Los Angeles Times recently quoted Sullivan as saying that "the chances of the president vetoing that bill would be quite high."