US Funding and Regulation of Embryo Research

In 1975 the U.S. National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects recommended guidelines for federal funding of research involving human fetuses, but stipulated that these guidelines did not cover research on IVF or on embryos resulting from IVF. It proposed that an Ethical Advisory Board be appointed to review such protocols, and this recommendation was incorporated into federal regulations. In 1978 an Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) was appointed to recommend a policy on federal funding for research involving IVF.

In its 1979 report the EAB concluded that research on IVF was ethically acceptable for federal funding under these conditions: that all federally funded research is directed toward establishing the safety and efficacy of IVF; all gametes used to develop embryos in research protocols are provided by married couples; and no embryos are preserved in the laboratory beyond fourteen days of development. The EAB's rationale was based on two main points. First, it would be irresponsible to offer clinical IVF without doing the studies necessary to insure its safety and efficacy. Second, given the high rate of embryo loss in natural procreation, a similar rate of loss could be tolerated for the goal of eventually achieving pregnancies and births.

The EAB did not distinguish between embryos created for research purposes and embryos remaining from infertility treatment. In fact, the board implied that at times it might be necessary to create embryos with no intent to transfer them to a woman. For the sake of safety, the results of new types of procedures would have to be studied in the laboratory before the procedures were offered clinically. It would be unethical to transfer to a woman the embryos resulting from unvalidated novel procedures.

The EAB report elicited an outpouring of letters opposing embryo research, and its recommendations were never implemented. When the EAB charter expired in 1980, a subsequent board was not appointed, thus leaving no body to review proposals for federal funding of IVF and embryo research. This situation effectively created a moratorium on federal funding in the United States, though it did not affect research that was privately funded.

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