The NIH's Morally and Scientifically Incoherent Stem Cell Guidelines


stem cells

First, let's set aside the question of whether or not there should be any federal funding for research and development. The fact is that there is such funding. Now, given the fact that the feds spend billions on research, shouldn't that money be spent in the most cost-effective way? In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Listeners took this to mean that future decisions dealing with scientific matters would not be subject to ideological skewing as occurred during the Bush administration.

Alas, it appears that the National Institutes of Health is ignoring what science has to say about human embryonic stem cell research in its new draft guidelines for funding such research. The nub of those guidelines reads as follows:

These draft Guidelines would allow funding for research using human embryonic stem cells that were derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for that purpose. Funding will continue to be allowed for human stem cell research using adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. Specifically, these Guidelines describe the conditions and informed consent procedures that would have been required during the derivation of human embryonic stem cells for research using these cells to be funded by the NIH. NIH funding for research using human embryonic stem cells derived from other sources, including somatic cell nuclear transfer, parthenogenesis, and/or IVF embryos created for research purposes, is not allowed under these Guidelines.

To sum up: Deriving stem cells from left over embryos from fertility clinics is OK; making new ones from which to derive stem cells is not. This is a weasely split the difference decision that in no way honors either ethics or science. 

On ethics — either the right-to-lifers are right and embryos, however produced, are people or they are not. IVF embryos and cloned research embryos will have the same moral status whatever that is. This proposed NIH funding guideline is just flat-out morally incoherent.

On science — a lot can be gleaned from research using left over IVF embryos, but much more can be learned about diseases using embryos that have been created with the aim of studying specific genetic diseases. In addition, therapeutic cloning (although no one has yet successfully created a cloned human stem cell line) may turn out to be the best way to create perfect patient matched transplants to repair aging and damaged organs and tissues. 

So the proposed NIH guidelines fail both morally and scientifically. Let's hope this gets fixed during the upcoming 30-day comment period.