- At the Vortex of Controversy:Developing Guidelines for Human Embryo Research
Because of the unavoidable time delay between the submission and publication of this article, its readers will have a significant advantage over its writer: You will know whether the recommendations of the Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, on which I have served as a member since its inception in January of this year, are progressing smoothly as the basis for evaluating future, federally-funded embryo research—or whether any of the recommendations has become stalled in controversy and political dispute. Staid journals like Science already are predicting that the Panel's Report is likely to create a stormy autumn for the National Institutes of Health.
The Panel formally presented its Report to NIH Director Harold Varmus on September 27. The Panel's recommendations will be reviewed by the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) until the ACD's next meeting in early December. At that time, the ACD will make formal recommendations to Dr. Varmus, who then will initiate the process of drafting federal regulations that could go into effect by Spring 1995.
Controversy is not new to the area of human embryo research. In the United States, federal regulations enacted in the mid-1970s required any research on the human embryo to be approved by a federally mandated Ethics Advisory Board (EAB). The EAB drafted a significant report that provided ethical guidelines for research on the early, ex utero, human embryo. However, before the report could be acted upon, a new administration, which was opposed to abortion and anything remotely viewed as threatening to prenatal life, came to office, and when the EAB's charter expired in 1980, it was not renewed. In this manner, the Reagan and Bush administrations forestalled any federal support for embryo research in the United States. The next 13 years saw a significant expansion of infertility services in this country, but in the absence of federal funding and [End Page 345] review, there was very little systematic research on either infertility procedures or the human embryo.
In January 1993, the U.S. political environment changed again when the Clinton administration fulfilled a campaign promise to remove a nearly five-year-old ban on fetal tissue transplantation research. Although fetal tissue research, which uses the remains of an aborted fetus, significantly differs from embryo research, which involves the developing conceptus ex utero before its transfer to and implantation in a womb, the changed political environment stimulated public discussion of embryo research as well. As a result, in June 1993, Congress nullified the federal regulations requiring EAB review for embryo research. Although this presumably left NIH free to fund embryo research without restrictions, NIH officials felt that guidelines were needed to ensure that such research was conducted in an ethically and socially responsible manner. Accordingly, in January 1994, NIH formed the Human Embryo Research Panel to propose such guidelines.
The Panel Begins its Work
Chaired by Steven Muller, President emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University, the Panel's 19 members included 7 basic and clinical scientists, 4 ethicists, 2 lawyers, and 6 individuals representing various backgrounds relevant to the making of public policy. Patricia King of the Georgetown University Law Center and Brigid Hogan, a cell biologist at Vanderbilt University, were appointed policy and science co-chairs respectively. Meeting for the first time in early February, the Panel was told by its chair and co-chairs that NIH's need for guidance in the face of pending proposals meant that it had approximately six months—including five one- to two-day meetings each month in Washington—in which to complete its work.
In his charge, Dr. Varmus asked the Panel to place the possible areas of research into three categories: (1) acceptable for federal funding; (2) warranting additional review; and (3) unacceptable for federal support. In addition, he asked the Panel to draft guidelines for the review and conduct of the research deemed acceptable.
Looking back after months of work, I vividly recall a sense of the enormity of the task facing us. We were being asked, in a short period of time, not only to master...