Bill Clinton has announced that American scientists will be able to conduct federally funded research into human embryonic stem cells. Clinton's announcement follows a review by his administration of guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week. Any work carried out on embryo stem cells will have to follow strict ethical and legal controls.
Any applications for government funding for stem cell research will be considered by a special stem cell review group, which will be set up to ensure compliance with the official guidelines. The guidelines state that scientists will only be able to use stem cells extracted from surplus frozen IVF embryos which were already destined to be destroyed by fertility clinics. Payment for embryos will be prohibited in the hope that this will discourage the creation of embryos purely for research reasons, and donors of embryos will be prevented from specifying who should receive their embryo's stem cells in the hope that women will be discouraged from creating embryos to provide treatment for a sick relative. Federal funds will not be used to destroy embryos directly, so federal researchers will have to work on stem cells taken from embryos by privately financed scientists and passed on.
Those who oppose the research argue that any research on embryos destroys human life. One proponent of this view is George W Bush, Republican presidential nominee. Members of Congress are sparring over the guidelines, one calling the NIH approach 'legal sophistry' and a 'transparent attempt to bypass a four-year-old congressional amendment banning federal funding of research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death'. Another congressman has said that the potential benefits of the research are 'truly awe inspiring'.
Although Clinton acknowledged that the research is opposed by religious and anti-abortion groups, he said 'we cannot walk away from the potential to save lies and improve lives, to help people literally get up and walk, to do all kinds of things we could never have imagined'. Clinton believes that it would be wrong not to follow up the potential that these cells might offer to treatments of disease and injuries. However, the first research grants would not be awarded until late 2001 at the earliest, providing Congress or the next administration does not interfere.
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U.S. OKs human embryo research