Panel Urges Embryo Donation Policy

7:12 PM EST; September 13, 1999; Washington, D.C. (AP) -- Women with embryos left over from infertility treatments should be allowed to donate them to taxpayer-funded medical research -- meaning a federal law that prohibits such research should be changed, President Clinton's top ethics advisers said Monday. The National Bioethics Advisory Commission's report comes even though the White House previously indicated it disagrees with that recommendation. At issue are embryonic stem cells, unique "master cells" that in early embryos generate all the other tissues of the body. Stem cells are causing huge scientific excitement, because researchers hope the cells one day could regenerate body parts or create new therapies for Alzheimer's Disease and other devastating diseases. But their use has raised troubling ethical questions, because culling stem cells destroys the embryo. Federal law prohibits taxpayer-funded human embryo research, and about 75 members of Congress have opposed a move to get around that prohibition to enable the National Institutes of Health to study the cells' medical potential. Therefore, President Clinton ordered his "ethics advisers" to study how the nation should proceed. Citing the cells' great promise, the panel said embryos left over from infertility treatment -- which otherwise would be thrown away -- should be allowed to be donated to taxpayer-funded scientists.

Privately funded researchers last year culled stem cells from donated embryos, and multiplied the cells in a laboratory. Despite the federal law, the NIH contends it would be legal for its researchers to use those lab-grown supplies because government scientists never touched the original embryos. But the ethics panel said that relying on those supplies "could severely limit scientific and clinical progress" because more embryos may be needed. The federal ban should be changed because it "conflicts with several of the ethical goals of medicine ... especially healing." Embryos could not be sold, and couples could not be pressured to donate, the panel stressed. Clinton issued a statement thanking the ethicists for "a thoughtful report." But the White House in July said it didn't plan to try to get the law changed, instead backing the NIH proposal.