A Summary of Issues Discussed at the NIH's 2 Day Meeting on Human Embryo Research

Author: Richard Doerflinger

The Human Embryo Research Panel: Creating Life to Destroy It by Richard M. Doerflinger

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At its fourth meeting on May 3-4, the NIH [National Institute of Health] Human Embryo Research Panel reaffirmed its conviction that human embryos are not "human beings." It also tentatively endorsed federal funding for some extremely controversial experiments: harvesting and maturing eggs from the ovaries of aborted fetuses, specially creating human embryos for the sole purpose of experimenting on them and destroying them, and using techniques like "cloning" and parthenogenesis to create embryos for research and dissection. Although the panelists decided to oppose funding for some procedures -- creating human/ animal hybrids, or bringing "cloned" embryos to live birth -- they also made it clear that any ban on these may be only temporary.

*Human Embryos: Getting No Respect*

The panel continued discussing the kind of "respect" human embryos should receive because of their "limited" moral status. The suggestion from an earlier meeting that research embryos be cremated after the experiment, to show "respect" for their remains, was rejected as too strict. As Dr. Mary Martin said, "the standard practice would be to use a biohazard disposal mechanism."

As for the research itself, the panel decided that human embryos in the laboratory can be subjected to destructive non-therapeutic experiments that would never be allowed on embryos residing in their mothers' wombs.

When applied to the human embryo, the kinds of experiments currently _allowed_ on unborn and newborn children -- "therapeutic" experiments to help a particular child, or observations that pose no risk of harm -- were redefined by the panel. An experiment could be seen as "therapeutic" if it might benefit an entire group or "cohort" of embryos, even if it carried no benefit for a *particular* child. Dr. Kenneth Ryan said any other standard would be "a mirage." According to attorney Alta Charo, "risk" would mean the "risk of a child _being born_ with some kind of deleterious condition." In other words, the whole concept of "harm" would be irrelevant as long as one makes sure a damaged embryo is *not* transferred to the womb and brought to term. As Charo candidly observed, "We're already ready to destroy them, so to talk about harm seems a little bit disingenuous."

The panelists acknowledged that a more meaningful protection against "harm" might forbid routine _in vitro_ fertilization, and practices such as "preimplantation genetic diagnosis." In the former it is taken for granted that most of the embryos transferred to the womb will perish, as illustrated by this exchange between _IVF_ practitioner Dr. Martin and philosopher Carol Tauer:

Martin: "When we transfer, say, three embryos, we expect or hope that there may be an implantation, but usually the likelihood of all three of them is low. That's why we put three in."

Tauer: "You hope all three *won't* implant."

Martin: "Exactly."

Similarly, procedures like "preimplanation genetic diagnosis" (testing embryonic cells for signs of abnormality) are designed to facilitate what Dr. Brigid Hogan called "the discard of genetically abnormal embryos." Convinced that such procedures should receive government funds, the panelists decided that even embryos initially intended for transfer to the womb must not be individually protected from harm or death. What matters is to ensure that damaged embryos are not _born alive_.

*Creating in Order to Destroy*

The panel then turned to what Dr. Ronald Green called "the deliberate creation of embryos that will be used for research and then destroyed, with no intention ever of using them for implantation." These could be treated with even _less_ respect than embryos originally intended for transfer to the womb, because _none_ of them will be allowed to survive past the embryonic stage.

Here the issue of "supply" again reared its head. Some panelists had ethical problems with using frozen sperm, eggs, and embryos previously donated for reproductive purposes -- unless one could go back to the donors and obtain informed consent to use their "donations" for destructive experiments. Also rejected was the idea of offering payment to donors, because it would make their consent less than totally "voluntary." But then the panel began to worry that the supply of "spare" embryos left over from fertility programs will not meet researchers' demand.

Chairman Steven Muller expressed doubts that once embryo research is funded, "there's going to be a terrible need for hundreds or maybe thousands of embryos." But the scientists on the panel quickly corrected him. According to Dr. Martin, "you probably need hundreds of embryos" for a *single experiment* to get a reliable result.

Some panelists nonetheless had reservations about filling this need by creating new embryos solely for experimentation and destruction. As Prof. Patricia King said, this involves "the act of creating for the purpose of not to allow to continue to exist." Since the panel's April meeting, she and chairman Muller had consulted friends on this topic. She said she encountered "absolute amazement" that the panel might approve such creation-for-destruction, and Muller also said he found it was more "controversial" than he had imagined.

But Ms. Charo argued that research in "the development of new contraceptives" requires such special creation of embryos, because one must observe the process of fertilization itself and try different ways of disrupting it. And "if we're talking about things that have benefit to humankind, the development of new contraceptives is absolutely at the top of the list."

Prof. King proposed allowing the creation of "research embryos" only for experiments that cannot be done with "spare" embryos. But Dr. Hogan objected that once such an experiment is completed, the new embryos should also be usable for other purposes. "Why not let's reap the most benefit we can out of them," she asked, "and use them for as much as we possibly can before throwing them away?" Chairman Muller later added that such embryos might be used as large "control groups" for experiments on "spare" embryos.

Prof. King emphasized the need for "break points" to prevent a "slippery slope" toward mass-producing embryos as guinea pigs for lethal experiments. Muller agreed, but added that such mass production "probably will happen in any case, the way the world is going."

*Fetal Ovaries: A Future Source*

Prof. King also urged some caution on the harvesting of eggs from aborted unborn children, noting that this issue "is as controversial as research embryos." She proposed that fetal eggs be used "only" when the experiment demands it -- for example, when one is trying to learn more about the development of eggs in the fetal ovary. Dr. Bernard Lo agreed that the use of fetal ovaries will be "hotly opposed," and that the claims of lifesaving benefit made for some other fetal tissues do not apply here. Some panelists nonetheless favored using fetal ovaries.

Dr. Mark Hughes asked if there is "some magical reason" why these cannot be used when other fetal tissues can be transplanted using federal funds. But Dr. Martin said she had "done research with some fetal tissue," and found that "dissecting out fetal ovaries" is an "arduous" way to get eggs compared to harvesting eggs from the ovaries of women undergoing hysterectomies. Dr. John Eppig added that experiments to mature fetal eggs in the laboratory can be funded without any action from this panel, because it does not involve research on embryos. Chairman Muller therefore proposed that the use of fetal ovaries to create embryos be classified as "requiring further review" -- but that experiments on harvesting and maturing the eggs themselves be funded now, to prepare for their possible use to create embryos later.

The panel also decided that eggs can be harvested from dead adults to create "research embryos," following the same procedures used for other organs under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. A dead woman could have her eggs harvested, and used to create an embryo for experimentation and destruction, with nothing more than the usual consent from "next of kin." Dr. Guerra noted that dead children's ovaries can also be harvested with the consent of their parents. Prof. Tauer objected to the use of dead children, but was quickly corrected by Dr. Ryan, who said that excluding children would "condemn" them to being "unable" to participate in and "benefit" from embryo research.

*Parthenogenesis and Cloning*

Some researchers on the panel were excited about the prospects for experiments on "parthenotes." These are created by doubling the genetic makeup of an ovum, without fertilization by a sperm. (Also considered were their male counterpart, "androgens," created by removing the genes from an ovum and replacing them with the genes from two sperm.)

Since parthenotes are created without fertilization and cannot survive beyond the embryonic stage, Dr. Hughes and other panelists claimed that "they're not embryos" at all. As Muller said, "parthenotes are not capable of evolving into human beings." According to Prof. Tauer, then, they can be used "to do things that you couldn't do with research embryos." Among other things, experimentation on these beings would have no limit as to developmental stage, but could go through the "primitive streak" stage that is supposedly a (somewhat flexible) barrier in experiments on other embryos. So one could wait for the onset of differentiation into organs and tissues, then dissect out some tissues and grow them in cell culture for later research or transplantation.

The panelists noted that parthenogenesis will be controversial in some circles. Dr. Lo said it "involves some sort of tampering with the natural order," and Dr. Green noted that some "religious sensitivities" may be offended by the notion of a kind of "virgin birth" in the laboratory. But Dr. Hughes said this was simply "an educational problem" arising from the general public's ignorance, and chairman Muller announced a consensus on the panel that experiments in this area should be funded.

"Cloning" was another area where the panel was willing to proceed despite controversy. This term was seen as encompassing two procedures.

A kind of cloning known as "nuclear transplantation" could be used to replace an embryo's nucleus with a nucleus from the cell of another embryo, or even from the body cell of an adult, to produce an exact genetic replica of the donor. Dr. Hogan outlined one possible application: "An adult human requiring something like a bone marrow transplantation with a very rare genotype . . . could perhaps donate something like a blood cell or a skin cell, the nucleus could be removed, and the nucleus could be put into an activated egg.... From that you could get cell lines, pluripotential cell lines that could be differentiated into blood cells. Then they could be put back into a human. There would be no danger of any immunological rejection because essentially those cells would be identical to the person they came from."

The panel decided that such research would require further review but could be pursued "down the line" -- so long as no one tried to bring such a clone to live birth. Dr. Hogan reported that use of the procedure in cows had produced calves with "abnormalities," and Dr. Hughes worried about public reaction to news of "virgin births" using the technique. Dr. Green expressed the panel's consensus that "implantation transfer is impermissible, absolutely impermissible _at this point"_ (emphasis added).

The second kind of cloning, "blastomere splitting" or "embryo splitting," would involve separating the cells of a two- to four-celled embryo and growing each cell into a separate embryo. This was the technique used in the "cloning" experiment at George Washington University that prompted a public controversy last fall. Dr. Hogan reported that "the scientific justification for using this for infertility treatment is very small," because "the viability of these embryos drops off dramatically as cleavage proceeds." But it could be used to produce several genetically identical "research embryos" at a time, so one could more easily compare the effects of "different culture conditions or treatments." She recommended funding the procedure for this purpose, but prohibiting its use to produce liveborn children.

Dr. Hughes intervened to make sure that this policy will allow funding for his specialty of "preimplanation genetic diagnosis," which involves removing a cell from an embryo for genetic testing to help decide whether to implant or discard the entire embryo. Other panelists said they would try to "protect" his research.

Dr. Eppig saw even more scientific benefit in "disassociating" embryos into their individual cells and then observing them as they "pull back together again." He agreed with Dr. Hughes that "there are some important reasons why you would want to take an embryo apart other than simply wanting to create more embryos." Dr. Hogan said that if it has a valid scientific purpose, "I don't see anything wrong with doing it."

Some panelists suggested that there should be limits on cloning, because it involves producing new embryos for the sole purpose of experimentation and destruction. But Dr. Green argued that this technique does not produce "new" embryos, because "they don't represent anything new that is not already present in the single surplus embryo that will not be implanted" from which they arose. In the end, "blastomere splitting" was recommended for immediate funding for experimental use, and attempts to transfer the products of such "cloning" to the womb were classified as "requiring further review." Prof. Tauer said that "we're nowhere near ready to try implantation" of such clones, but "I would not like the prohibition of transfer with these embryos to be in the same category as human/animal chimeras, which I see as forever prohibited."

In fact, the door was left open a crack even for bizarre "chimera" experiments. When chairman Muller repeated that experiments mixing human and animal embryos "should be forever proscribed," Prof. Tauer took back her words: "I don't know if I'd use the word 'forever,' " she said.

*Public Comment*

As in past meetings, the panel heard brief public testimony; and as in the past, the testimony came largely from pro-life critics who object to the panel's entire enterprise. Dr. Marco Colombini of Maryland urged the panel to reject "deliberate killing" of human beings at every stage of development. Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life attacked the practice of "stripmining women's bodies for reproductive material," and objected to "genetic litmus tests used to weed out undesirables." They and other pro-life witnesses urged the panel to treat embryos as fellow humans deserving protection.

At one point a panelist expressed agreement with one of these witnesses: Dr. Ryan agreed with pro-life attorney R. Martin Palmer that it is "ridiculous" to use the word "pre-embryo" to describe early embryos. But when a witness from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) stepped forward to promote embryo research, and used the word "pre-embryo" throughout his testimony, he was treated with great deference.

Interestingly, even ACOG admitted that it "could not come to a conclusion" on the ethics of creating embryos solely for research and destruction. But a witness from the American Medical Association was more sympathetic to the idea, saying that "it would not be inconsistent with our policy."

Finally, some comic relief was offered by Paul Soberman of Brooklyn, New York, who insisted that "cloning should be federally funded to the maximum." He conceded that "some restrictions might be in order," because "no one wants a Charles Manson clone." He also suggested "bringing back those who have passed on" through DNA experiments like the one featured in the movie _Jurassic Park_. While the panelists later joked about Mr. Soberman's testimony, it was not clear what right this panel had to see his ideas as funny.

*What's Ahead?*

The Human Embryo Research Panel continued on course toward an expansive recommendation for federal funding of lethal human embryo experiments. Almost the only experiments it seemed prepared to prohibit were those which may lead to a live birth. It certainly saw no problem with using federal funds to create, manipulate, and throw away hundreds or thousands of human embryos a year. All that remains of the panel's work is a final meeting on June 21-22, to complete its report to the director of the National Institutes of Health.

_Mr. Doerflinger is associate director of Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops._

[ This article first appeared in the in the June 21, 1994 issue of _National Right to Life News_. Copied with permission. _National Right to Life News_ is the official publication of the National Right to Life Committee, Inc.