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When Science Is a Casualty of Ideology : Top medical groups take up key fetal-research issues that federal government ignores

January 13, 1991

Two medical societies say they are planning to fill the "scientific and ethical vacuum" left by Washington when it abandoned research on the use of fetal tissue to cure disease. It is a bold and welcome move.

With few exceptions, national politicians tend to flee or ignore the issue. That is because tissue grafts--which have shown growing promise in the last 20 years as a treatment for Parkinson's disease and may be useful in arresting Alzheimer's disease--come from aborted fetuses.

The tissue is so valued because in grafts it grows so fast to replace damaged or dying cells that the human body does not reject the transplanted material.

But as abortion increasingly became a defining issue of 1980s politics, the federal government backed away, first dismissing an advisory panel to guide the ethics of research and then, in 1988, cutting off federal funds for such research. Fetal-tissue research withered in the United States, even as it flourished in Britain, Australia, Sweden and other countries.

The societies are the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Fertility Society. They plan to create a 15-member advisory board that would include physicians, scientists and ethicists but public members would dominate.

Dr. Kenneth Ryan, chairman of Harvard Medical School's department of obstetrics and gynecology, said the board would set standards for research, probe for answers to ethical questions and recommend safeguards against research abuse.

A spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee greeted the announcement by saying the country does not need a "tiny elite clique deciding fundamental ethical issues." But tiny clique or not, it needs somebody to do precisely that.

There is no way to stop research in other countries, certainly not when the techniques hold out hope for curing not just Parkinson's disease but juvenile diabetes, damaged spinal cords, epilepsy and other disorders. If the research succeeds, Americans will benefit; that is not the problem. The problem is that federal policy discouraging such research also discourages young researchers and deprives the world of any contribution from Americans who have made so many breakthroughs in biomedicine.

As Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House health and environment subcommittee, says, the private operation is no substitute for the kind of federal program he is trying to put through. But at this stage, it is far better than nothing.

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