Responsible approach to stem-cell research

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2000

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Sunday:

The National Institutes of Health should be congratulated for its thoughtful decision on human stem-cell research, which threads the needle between medical progress and spiritual sensibilities. Too many lives are at stake to allow such progress to be held captive to the beliefs of ill-informed religious groups and their political allies in Congress who liken embryo research to false images of Brave New World gone amok.

The NIH has wisely required that stem cells used in federally funded research be derived only from excess embryos created for in-vitro fertilization or from cadaveric fetal tissue. The recommendation is respectful to the needs of the scientific community, to patients suffering from diseases that may benefit from stem cell research, and to religious groups that mistakenly link research to abortion.

How fitting that assisted reproduction, a process that brings the love and laughter of children into an infertile couple's home, may one day allow Parkinson's sufferer Michael J. Fox - and millions like him - to not worry about whether he will be able to dance at his daughter's wedding, as he said during a recent congressional hearing.

Consider these safeguards in the NIH proposal: Patients participating in infertility treatments will not be paid for their excess embryos. Nor, will they have any ability to profit from research done with their genetic material. Couples will be asked by someone other than their treating physician to donate the embryo to research. The same protocol will be used for individuals donating cadaveric fetal tissue.

Therefore, there are safeguards so that no embryos will be created or pregnancies terminated for research purposes.

The NIH guidelines are also clear about what stem-cell research will not be supported. There will be no half-man, half-beast; no human cloning. What there will be is serious research, which might treat such ailments as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

The one sticking point of the guidelines is the NIH's continued barring of federal funds for extracting the cell lines from embryos. Only research using stem cells from the embryos is allowable. This is to conform to a rider routinely attached the NIH appropriations bill by conservative lawmakers intended to stop embryo research by denying it federal support. The NIH has made a wise choice in releasing the shackles from stem-cell research. It is time for Congress to do the same.

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