Since 1996, the use of federal funds for research in which human embryos are destroyed has been prohibited by federal law. Recent recommendations by leading organizations in the scientific and bioethical communities could lead to a loosening of that ban—if doing so is embraced by the president and Congress.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), armed with an opinion from the general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on the scope of the existing ban, announced plans to fund research using "embryonic stem cells"—so long as no federal funds were used in the actual retrieval of those cells. Embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into virtually any type of human tissue; researchers hope they eventually could be used to cure or treat diseases for which adequate therapies do not now exist, including diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease (TGR Vol. 2, No. 2, April 1999).

In August, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Institute for Civil Society (ICS) jointly released a preliminary report that agrees with NIH. The AAAS-ICS report supports public funding for embryonic stem cell research, but stops short of recommending public funding for the derivation of those cells.

Last month, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), asked by President Bill Clinton to review the issue, also recommended that publicly funded research go forward, because embryonic stem cells present "such unusual scientific and therapeutic promise." Moreover, the 17-member board—whose membership includes physicians, ethicists, scientists and lawyers—went a significant step further. Rejecting the distinction made by NIH, AAAS and ICS between use and retrieval, the commission outlined conditions under which stem cells ethically could be both used for research and derived from fetal tissue following abortions and from embryos remaining after invitro fertilization and related infertility treatments. The commission did recommend that embryos not be created solely for research purposes, however.

Whether Clinton will accept or reject the NBAC recommendations remains to be seen. Antiabortion activists have long maintained a political stronghold on the issue, and they were allegedly successful in recently pressuring the American Cancer Society to withdraw its sponsorship of Patients' CURE, a coalition of organizations formed to lobby Congress against the embryo research ban. Meanwhile, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AK) has taken the lead in Congress in opposing the DHHS decision to fund research using privately obtained stem cells; Dickey has threatened to use his seat on the House appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services to prohibit the NIH guidelines from going into effect.