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Moratoriums on embryo research.

Moratoriums on Embryo Research

In 1985 the U.S. Congress imposed a three-year moratorium on funding from the National Institutes of Health for embryo research, which had the practical effect of substantially inhibiting studies on preimplantation embryos. Congress hoped that in the interim the very controversial subject would be addressed by its new Biomedical Ethics Advisory Committee, but ideological battles and less than full support from members of Congress prevented the Committee from even meeting (Hastings Center Report, "A Once and Future Biomedical Ethics Board," April/May 1988, 2). Thus, it is quite likely that the moratorium on funding will expire in October 1988 without any clear policy recommendations on such key issues as whether embryo research should be permitted; if allowed, the time period during which it may be done; and whether couples who donate embryos for research purposes should be reimbursed.

In two other countries, proposals on embryo research by governmental agencies and committees have sparked heated national debates. As part of a wide-ranging policy recommendation on several reproductive technologies (artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood) as well as genetic engineering, the West German cabinet in February requested the imposition of criminal penalties for research on human embryos. The proposal has been vigorously opposed by scientific and professional organizations on the grounds of scientific freedom, the "imperative" of embryo research, and concerns that criminalization will deter potential researchers from entering relevant fields like molecular biology (Nature 331, February 18, 1988, 555).

The subject of embryo research has also been debated recently in the British House of Commons in response to a 1987 government report. The government proposed criminal offenses for research on gene manipulation of human embryos, cloning of such embryos, or creating hybrid embryos, but left two alternatives on embryo research to a Parliament "free vote": (1) A complete prohibition on such research (except where there is an intention to transfer the embryos to a gestational mother as part of an in vitro fertilization procedure), or (2) "Controlled" research on embryos up to fourteen days after fertilization (a recommendation previously made by the 1984 Warnock report), carried out under the auspices of an independent Statutory Licensing Authority (SLA). This body of fifteen to twenty persons would be empowered with licensure of scientists and doctors performing IVF or embryo research, and would make decisions based on the scientific validity of the research, its purpose of advancing diagnostic or therapeutic techniques of fertility control, the absence of any reasonable alternatives, and the informed consent of the donors of the embryo or gametes (Department of Health and Social Security, Human Fertilisation and Embryology: A Framework for Legislation, London: HMSO, November 1987).

Because of past heated parliamentary debates, many scientists and researchers fear the real possibility that all research on embryos in Britain will be made illegal. Thus, in the Commons debate and in medical literature, this research has been portrayed as having several therapeutic results, including better treatment for infertility, earlier diagnosis and prevention of genetic diseases, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis, and improvements in contraceptive technology. Attention has also been drawn to potential undesired consequences were a research ban imposed, including inhibiting IVF programs or creating a greater risk of abnormalities to embryos implanted after research. However, opponents have argued that there are other alternatives for treatment of infertility and congenital disease besides research on human embryos, and that the government proposal gives greater protection to experimental animals than to human embryos. Some members of Parliament have expressed concern that the SLA would disproportionately favor research and not give proposals thorough review. At times, the debate has taken an ugly turn with opponents characterizing embryo research as no different "in kind" from Nazi experiments at Auschwitz (The New Scientist, February 11, 1988, 21; The Scientist, March 21, 1988, 22).

While there may be other policy alternatives regarding embryo research besides criminalization or procedural review, such a controversial issue must be open to public scrutiny. The failure of U.S. legislators in this regard represents a missed opportunity for public consideration and justification of embryo research.
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Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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