WASHINGTON -- A federal advisory panel endorsed the controversial new scientific field of human embryo research yesterday, saying that it holds significant promise for medical advances, but proposed a strict framework for its conduct.
The research has generated growing ethical concerns because it deals with creating and manipulating human life.
While the human embryo "warrants serious moral consideration as a developing form of life, it does not have the same moral status as infants and children," the panel said in a report to the National Institutes of Health, which will study the report further before any guidelines are finalized. The report said that embryos lack feeling and individual development, and "most other qualities considered relevant to the moral status of persons." It also cited the very high rate of natural mortality at that stage.
Many scientists believe that studying the human embryo -- at one week a cluster of cells no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence -- could yield valuable knowledge about some of nature's worst medical scourges, including genetic diseases, infertility and cancer.
Nevertheless, the work has been condemned by abortion foes, who view it as the destruction of human life. Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., has vowed to lead a congressional effort to derail federal funding for such research.
The panel's recommendations apply only to research conducted on human embryos that are created outside the uterus -- that is, embryos produced in a laboratory by mixing sperm and egg. The panel said research should be limited "to the shortest time possible" and should not be allowed beyond 14 days, which is considered a key threshold in the development of the embryo.
Generally, an embryo is not regarded as a fetus until it is at least 8 weeks old. On the most controversial question -- whether embryos should be made solely for research purposes -- the panel condoned the practice only under two specific scientific conditions: "when the research by its very nature cannot otherwise be validly conducted," and when a compelling case can be made that it is necessary "for the validity of a study that is potentially of outstanding scientific and therapeutic value."
The advisory group acknowledged that the second category would likely warrant "special scrutiny" during the grant review process.
The panel was established last year by NIH to grapple with the numerous ethical problems and draft a blueprint to guide NIH's review of projects seeking federal funding. The report will undergo further study within NIH and be the subject of a public meeting in December. Ultimately, NIH Director Harold Varmus will make the final decision on guidelines to govern the work.
Although the guidelines will not apply to privately funded work, they are nevertheless expected to influence private research in that they will bring the entire field under public scrutiny and pressure.
The American Fertility Society praised the report for its "cautious, balanced and sensitive parameters for research," saying that such research was "obviously . . . of grave importance" to its organization. Nevertheless, the society said, it believes human embryos "should be treated with special respect and extreme sensitivity at every level of research."
But the American Life League called such research "immoral, unethical and evil," and said that it would "pursue every moral and ethical avenue that is open to us."
Dr. William F. Colliton Jr., the league's director of medical affairs, said the panel had "turned its back on God" and described the work as "Nazi Germany revisited."