WASHINGTON - Scientific events have put the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) under a deadline once again.
In the wake of sheep-clone Dolly's international debut, President Clinton requested that NBAC take 90 days to produce a report on the ethics of cloning. With the announcement of the discovery of "master cells" known as human embryonic stem cells, President Clinton has given the commission six months to evaluate the ethics of using these cells for research.
NBAC spent the bulk of its meeting Tuesday getting input from ethicists and scientists in order to determine exactly how they intend to produce a report on such a wide-ranging topic in such a short period of time.
"I honestly do not know how you do it in the time you have," said Erik Parens, an associate at the Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y. "I am urging you, however, to take a look at the larger questions surrounding stem cell research."
The ethical questions surrounding research using human embryonic stem (ES) cells comes not from the cells themselves, which aren't embryos, but from their origin. The cells that will likely be made available for federally funded researchers come from two ethically difficult sources: aborted fetuses, and leftover embryos following successful in vitro fertilization attempts.
Federal statutes already address whether federally supported researchers may conduct research using fetal tissue. Under certain circumstances these tissues may be used for research purposes as long as the researchers have no influence on a woman's decision to have an abortion, or the timing or the manner of abortion.
But federal researchers are prohibited from conducting research that creates or destroys a human embryo. That ban is in a rider Congress has attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations legislation every year since 1995, following a report by the NIH's Embryo Research Panel that found an ethical basis for some embryo research.
Patricia King, a Georgetown University law professor who served on the Embryo Research Panel, told the commission that considering ES cells takes them directly into the embryo research debate and the larger abortion debate.
"There will not be consensus on the abortion debate," King said. "It is possible to gain consensus that would allow some, but not all, embryo research. That is what you can look for."
In addition, King noted that at the time she served on the Embryo Research Panel, she didn't appreciate the fact that rather than an ethics body, the panel was a public policy body that had to present policy recommendations. She urged commissioners to focus on their role as public policy authors.
Parens, however, petitioned the body to take a very different tack from the Embryo Research Panel. Noting that that mouse embryonic stem cells have allowed researchers to make germline modifications in mice, Parens said it's not inconceivable that human ES cells offer the same opportunities to human beings.
"It seems to me that it would be a serious mistake to set aside issues of germline alterations," Parens said. "It is incumbent upon us to seriously look at germline alterations and the possibility of genetically designing our children. If we, as a society, keep setting the issue aside we will be missing the big picture."
Depth, Language Still Need Addressing
Parens told the commission he was embarrassed to use the words "genetically designing our children" because such notions are often considered unsophisticated or "stupid talk." Often such concerns are seen as besmirching the intention of the research community, Parens noted.
"We don't have the words when we almost have the power," Parens said. "I just want to plea that you talk this question over seriously."
Fully cognizant of the pitfalls of the embryo research and abortion debates, the commissioners varied on the depth to which they saw the report going. University of Wisconsin at Madison law professor R. Alta Charo suggested they tackle the project in modules, which they would view as discrete topics.
"I would suggest looking at the sources of embryonic stem cells in a very reductionist fashion," Charo said. "We could consider the existing supplies, new supplies from aborted fetuses and lastly consider newly created supplies from viable embryos. We could stop where we felt we needed to."
Carol Greider, associate professor of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, however, argued that the issue of human embryo research would need to be discussed.
"I am not going to argue that we don't attack the issue of embryo research," Greider said. "One, by necessity, will be dealing with embryo research when one considers these stem cells. However, I do agree that we should focus on recommendations early in the process." n