A presidentially appointed bioethics commission yesterday called for loosening a four-year-old ban on federal funding for research involving human embryos, saying federally funded researchers should be allowed to more fully pursue the promising and controversial new field of human embryonic stem cell research.
At a meeting in Cambridge, Mass., the National Bioethics Advisory Commission released 14 final recommendations regarding research on human embryonic stem cells, a kind of cell discovered last fall that has the potential to grow into virtually any kind of tissue and that may prove invaluable in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, diabetes and a host of other degenerative diseases.
The 16-member commission, composed of ethicists, philosophers, scientists and theologians, came out against the creation of human embryos solely as sources of stem cells. But, as expected, it declared that federal agencies should fund stem cell research on surplus embryos obtained from fertility clinics, if the mother has properly consented.
Since 1995, Congress has precluded federally financed scientists from engaging in research that results in the destruction of human embryos. Because the isolation of stem cells results in embryo destruction, the National Institutes of Health has been devising guidelines that would allow its funded scientists to conduct experiments on stem cells that were first isolated by privately financed researchers.
The commission's recommendations go further, saying federal agencies should support the retrieval of stem cells from embryos. The report concludes that the potential benefits of the research to millions of adults outweigh the moral harm that may be done by destroying embryos.
Antiabortion activists and some lawmakers have warned that they will oppose any changes to the ban. And in a statement released late yesterday, the White House lent support to that position.
President Clinton "acknowledges the hard work" of the commission, the statement said. But no legal changes are needed, it continued, "because it appears that human embryonic stem cells will be available from the private sector."
The statement did not address the argument by some scientists that research will be slowed if it relies on private sources alone.