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Christian Groups Sue to Block Stem Cell Research

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

March 8, 2001 (Washington) -- The continuing firestorm over federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research got new fuel Thursday as a coalition filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for guidelines that would permit the National Institutes of Health to fund the research.

Embryonic stem cells are those that have not yet specialized into brain, heart, or other specific cell types. Early research has excited many scientists to the possibility that they may in the future be able to control the growth of stem cells to provide healthy tissue to battle a range of serious diseases.

Congressional hearings have featured emotional testimony from celebrities such as Christopher Reeve about the importance of promoting disease cures through federal support and oversight of the cutting-edge field.

But those involved in Thursday's lawsuit claimed that the issue involves the basic moral question of whether it is OK to kill humans for the good of other humans.

Federal law has barred federal funding for studies that destroy or put human embryos at risk. In 1999, however, the Clinton administration made a legal determination that funding stem cell research would be legal.

Although removing stem cells from an embryo does cause its destruction, the Clinton rules reasoned that public funding was permissible in some circumstances for research with cells that already had been taken from embryos.

Art Caplan, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania's bioethics institute, tells WebMD that both sides' boiling rhetoric has oversimplified the issue. On one side, research advocates have hyperinflated the hopes for disease cures, he says. As for the other side, he says, "The rhetoric that embryos are people is believed by the tiny fraction of the American public."

March 15 is the NIH's deadline for grant applications from stem cell researchers. The NIH will need several more months to determine who would get grants.

HHS had no comment on the lawsuit, but the move clearly angles to turn up the political heat on the Bush administration to rescind Clinton's OK for the research. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that he has concerns over Clinton's interpretation, given the prohibitions in the embryo research law. But he said he is conducting an "independent" legal review of the situation.

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