Despite President Clinton's directive that NIH not fund research involving the creation of embryos, most types of research on IVF and human embryos were still eligible for federal funding. However, in its next appropriations bill Congress reversed its previous stance and prohibited NIH from funding any research that might involve damaging or destroying human embryos. In 2003 this prohibition was still in effect.
During the 1990s scientific advances raised new questions regarding research with human embryos. In 1998 the first embryonic stem cell lines were developed from the inner cell mass of human blastocysts, and at the same time, similar stem cell lines were produced from the germ cell tissue of aborted fetuses. Deriving stem cells from blastocysts was clearly prohibited for federal funding. However, the derivation of stem cells from the tissue of aborted fetuses was eligible for federal funding under previous legislation (U.S. Public Law 103-43, Manier).
Another discovery was the successful cloning of a variety of nonhuman animals from adult cells, beginning with the cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1997. Research on human cloning arguably involves research on human embryos. These embryos are produced by transfer of somatic cell nuclei into enucleated oocytes, rather than through fertilization of eggs by sperm, yet their development and potential appear to be similar to those of fertilized eggs. Thus cloning research raises similar ethical questions.
The day after the announcement of the cloning of Dolly, President Clinton instructed the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to undertake a thorough review of the technology and to report within ninety days.
Given this short deadline, it is understandable that NBAC had to focus on issues specific to the cloning process. In particular, NBAC decided to "not revisit ... the issues surrounding embryo research," since the topic had "recently received careful attention by a National Institutes of Health panel, the Administration, and Congress" (Shapiro).
In contrast, when the President's Council on Bioethics appointed by President George W. Bush issued its report on cloning in 2002, it called for a broader debate on the entire topic of human embryo research. The ten-member majority of the council wanted cloning discussed "in the proper context of embryo research in general and not just that of cloning" (p. 133). Both the majority and minority reports call attention to the fact that human embryo research of all types remains essentially unregulated in the private sector, with the minority noting that "it seems inappropriate to halt promising embryo research in one arena (cloned embryos) while it proceeds essentially unregulated in others" (p. 143).
In the United States, public policy at the national level is focused on what types of research are eligible for public funding. There is essentially no regulation of research in the private sector. This situation contrasts sharply with that of most other countries, where laws apply to all research, regardless of the funding source.
As of April 2003, Germany, Austria, and Ireland prohibit embryo research unless intended to benefit the individual embryo subject. Germany does allow some importation of established stem cell lines for research. France prohibits any embryo research that would harm the embryo. However, in January 2002 the French assembly passed a bill that, if enacted, would permit research using surplus embryos originally created for reproductive purposes. Sweden allows research on surplus embryos up to day fourteen, including research on deriving stem cell lines. Creating IVF embryos solely for research is prohibited, but creating embryos through nuclear transfer is not mentioned in Swedish law and thus has an uncertain legal status. The United Kingdom arguably has the most permissive policies on embryo research within the European Union. It explicitly sanctions the granting of licenses to create embryos, including cloned embryos, for specific research projects.
Because of the diverse views and policies of its member states, the European Union has taken an intermediate position, providing support for research on surplus embryos in countries where that is permitted, but discouraging the creation of embryos for research. In April 2003 the European parliament voted for a ban on cloning or otherwise creating embryos for stem cell research. However, this decision becomes law only if approved by all fifteen member states of the European Union.
In May 2002 the Assisted Human Reproduction Act was introduced into the Canadian Parliament. The act prohibits the creation of a human clone for any purpose. It also prohibits the creation of an IVF embryo for research purposes with the exception of "improving or providing instruction in assisted reproduction procedures." In April 2003 the bill was in its third reading in the House of Commons.
In some non-Western countries, embryo research is proceeding with few restrictions. Chinese laboratories are forging ahead with cloning research to develop stem cells. Though Chinese scientists have been slow to publish their work, they may well be ahead of their Western counterparts (Leggett and Regalado). India has developed a number of internationally recognized stem cell lines, and scientists are developing additional lines. Dr. Firuza Parikh, Director of Reliance Life Sciences in Bombay, links their success to the absence of cultural and political opposition to embryo research (Lakshmi).
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