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NIH Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ignore Public Opinion and the Human Cost

by Staff
July 10, 2009
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PHILADELPHIA, ( -- July 7, 2009, marked a major ethical shift in United States government-funded research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented President Obama's executive order, "Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells" (March 9, 2009). The new NIH "Guidelines" authorize taxpayer funding of research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) harvested from human embryos as of July 7, 2009, or from earlier sources, both domestic and foreign, with the approval of the Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the Director.

Historically, federal funding of research on humans from which they derived no benefit has been prohibited. Now the destruction of human beings in their earliest and most vulnerable stages is promoted and funded by federal taxpayer dollars. Lengthy explanations exist as to how informed consent from the embryo donors will be obtained, and about how conflicts of interest will be handled, but no mention is made about the rights of the embryos themselves. In fact, the guiding principles are listed as follows:

1. Responsible research with hESCs has the potential to improve our understanding of human health and illness and discover new ways to prevent and/or treat illness.

2. Individuals donating embryos for research purposes should do so freely, with voluntary and informed consent. (p. 15).

No mention is made of the destruction of human life that these Guidelines support. Such a lacuna fails to represent the breadth of reasoned public opinion on this issue.

This egregious violation of human life is exacerbated by the fact that there are ethical alternatives (namely induced pluripotent stem cells) that share the same plastic-like properties as embryonic stem cells. Second, there exists wide consensus that stem cell research using adult stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells, or stem cells from cord blood should be used and funded. There is not wide consensus on the use of embryonic stem cells. To say that there is, is to ignore a sector of the population and more importantly, the arguments they have against such research. Third, the Guidelines open up funding for research that has yet to show any distinctive therapeutic benefit in humans. Such use of funds is irresponsible.

The NCBC is grateful that the NIH responded to its call for more explicit prohibitions against inducements of parents to donate embryos, and to NCBC's support of prohibitions against expanding the sources of embryos to be destroyed by this research. However, these Guidelines represent a break in a tradition of respecting human subjects, especially the most vulnerable of human beings, who have no voice. Human embryos are human beings in their earliest stage of development. Their value is not dependent upon age, genetic makeup, development or maturity. Discrimination against these human beings is no less reprehensible and arbitrary than any other form.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center was founded in 1972 to apply the Roman Catholic moral tradition to developments in health care and the life sciences.

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