Charging that the government has abdicated its responsibility, two leading medical organizations announced yesterday that they will form a national advisory board to monitor embryo and fetal tissue research.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Fertility Society said they will establish a 15-member board of religious leaders, lawyers and ethicists, as well as physicians and scientists, to set guidelines and implement peer review procedures in the controversial areas of research on embryos and fetal tissue transplantation.
"Research on fetal tissue and reproductive technologies is going on in this country and will continue with or without government regulation," said Kenneth Ryan, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School and a spokesman for ACOG.
The "time is ripe for a private group to shoulder the task of setting standards" to ensure that this research is "ethically and scientifically sound," he said.
Antiabortion groups, however, called the action a thinly veiled attempt to revise federal policy. "I see this largely as a public relations exercise intended to undermine the current federal policies, which protect the human dignity of unborn children," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
The Reagan and Bush administrations have opposed certain types of fetal tissue research on grounds that it would encourage more elective abortions, although Ryan said there has been no such effect in other countries supporting the research, such as Britain and Australia.
Since March 1988, the government has banned federal financing of certain types of research on fetal tissue collected from induced abortions -- a move many scientists want to reverse. An expert panel convened by the National Institutes of Health voted unanimously in December 1988 to lift the moratorium. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, has not acted.
While banning use of fetal tissue from induced abortions for transplantation to humans, the federal government allows use of such tissue for transplant to animals or for obtaining human cells, proteins and other body components. NIH spent about $7.3 million in 1989 on such research, a spokeswoman said.
Experiments have shown that research on tissue from aborted fetuses holds the promise of treating a variety of disorders, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. But this research requires human transplantation.
"The federal government has missed the opportunity to take the lead in establishing standards for research on fetal tissue and the new reproductive technologies," said Howard Jones, head of the American Fertility Society's ethics commission and founder of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk. The new board "will fill this void."
Currently, research on pre-embryos -- fertilized eggs less than 10 days old -- and fetal tissue is reviewed case by case at hospitals.