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[whitespace] Petri Dish Politics

The battle continues over whether public or private enterprise will have the final say over embryonic research

By Dara Colwell

THE LEGAL TUG-OF-WAR over embryonic research has continually shifted, with one side gaining ground only to lose it eventually to the other. In 1980, reflecting strong antiabortion sentiments during his presidency, Ronald Reagan--and later, George Bush--blocked federal funding for research on human embryos. More than a decade later, in 1992, President Clinton lifted that ban and instructed the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, to draft new guidelines for embryo research.

In November 1994, the NIH's research panel presented its guidelines, which allowed scientists to both experiment with surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures and create embryos, in the same manner, for research. Researchers had to prove their work promised outstanding scientific value.

A month later, however, on the day the guidelines went up for a vote, President Clinton issued a last-minute executive order preventing federally funded scientists from creating human embryos for research. Scientists were still able to use embryos left over from fertility treatments.

In 1996, under increasing pressure from antiabortion groups, the House Appropriations Committee amended NIH guidelines to bar federal funds for research that either created or destroyed human embryos. What this delicate wording meant was that scientists could not work with leftover embryos, even if they were destined to be discarded, because extracting stem cells would destroy them. The ban pushed research straight into the private sector, which was not restricted by federal guidelines or ethical concerns.

On August 23, 2000, President Clinton once again lifted the ban. The National Institute of Health published guidelines for the public funding of embryo stem cell research, which Clinton welcomed, saying it offered "potentially staggering benefits."

The new guidelines have been largely welcomed by the scientific community, but during his first week of office, President Bush announced his opposition. Bush could throw out the guidelines, block federal funding for research and, like his father before him, he could ban funding for research on aborted fetuses--a second source of stem cells. If Bush does, this would again leave this field of research entirely in the hands of private corporations.

In the meantime, the NIH keeps rolling ahead. On March 15, the National Institute of Health began accepting the first-ever applications from scientists seeking federal grants to experiment with embryonic stem cells. But how many scientists will actually apply in the long run is unclear because Bush could soon block that money.

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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