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Administration Directs Panel to Study Embryo Protections

October 30, 2002|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has directed an advisory panel to study what protections are offered to embryos and fetuses in medical experiments, renewing criticism that federal officials may be using "backdoor" methods to provide a legal groundwork for curtailing abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research.

The directive is included in the charter of a new panel that will advise the Department of Health and Human Services on "human research protections" -- the rules that ensure that medical researchers do not abuse individuals who participate in experiments.

Department officials said they intended to make sure that the panel took a complete look at protections for pregnant women in research. Issues related to abortion and stem-cell research did not arise as they wrote the new charter, they said.

But people on both sides of the abortion debate said that the directive in fact stated that embryos were "human subjects" in the context of medical experiments. Advocates for research that uses embryos said it appeared to be at least the second recent example of the administration seeking to elevate the legal and moral status of the embryo, which they said in time could weaken the right to choose abortion or to experiment with embryos.

Earlier this year, the administration announced that unborn children were eligible for certain government health benefits.

"Clearly, a fertilized egg is not the same thing as a patient or person in research, and should not be treated that way,'' said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which represents fertility doctors. "Certainly there are political actors who are looking to establish a precedent that an embryo is the equivalent of a human being, and this fits right into that agenda."

"They're trying to make a political statement here," Anthony Mazzaschi of the Assn. of American Medical Colleges said of the administration. "This has the potential to be a backdoor effort to affect policy on stem-cell and cloning research."

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said: "We applaud the administration for explicitly recognizing in the charter that the term 'human subjects' includes all living members of the species Homo sapiens at every stage of development, and that all deserve protection from unethical experimentation."

He said the language was consistent with several measures passed by Congress, including one that bans federal funds for research that harms embryos. "If you're going to write a charter for a new panel, it would be remarkable if it didn't reflect those congressional enactments," he said.

The panel is called the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections. Its members have not been named. The panel replaces one convened in the Clinton years whose charter had expired.

Federal health officials are not obligated to follow the panel's advice. Still, its recommendations could affect all federally funded research.

While private-sector research would generally not be included in the panel's deliberations, an official with HHS said it could affect some private research conducted to win Food and Drug Administration approvals for drugs or medical devices.

Arthur J. Lawrence, deputy assistant secretary for health operations and assistant surgeon general at HHS, said it was "plausible" that the advisory committee could read its charter to allow it to debate embryonic stem-cell research.

"The intent was to be sure that as more women come into the research subject population, that if they are pregnant the effects of the research are considered in light of not only the woman but potential effects on the fetus or embryo," Lawrence said. "The objective was to say, 'You can't ignore the fetus or embryo when thinking of a pregnant woman.' "

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