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Groups React to US Administration's Latest Decision on Embryo Classification

Oct 30, 2002
By Todd Zwillich
Reuters Health

Key groups in Washington reacted Wednesday to reports that the Bush Administration has broadened the charge of an important research advisory committee to include human embryos.

The Department of Health and Human Services has rewritten the charter of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, extending the panel's purview to include human embryos for the first time, according to a report in the Washington Post.

"It's part of a broader political agenda," said Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the Society for Reproductive Medicine. "Why does the administration need to talk about this at all if you can't do federally funded research" on embryos, he said in an interview.

Tipton said that embryos do not qualify as human beings in the view of his organization's physician members. "It's a tissue. Now, it's a tissue you provide some special recognition because of its potentiality," he said.

The National Institutes of Health panel is responsible for advising the HHS Secretary on human research ethics and safety issues and has no direct control over federal research regulations or policy.

But the move, reportedly completed in October but revealed 6 days before the federal mid-term elections, is the second time in recent weeks the administration has used seemingly obscure health policies to support anti-abortion positions. Administration officials announced in September a controversial decision to allow fetuses to qualify for government child health benefits.

Pro-life groups praised the latest decision by the administration. "We applaud the administration for explicitly recognizing that the term 'human subject' explicitly includes all living members of the species homo sapiens at every stage of their development," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

In an interview, Johnson called the new charter "unremarkable" since Congress has already outlawed federal funding for research on human embryos. "There's not any novelty here," he said.

But others disagreed, saying that HHS and the White House were continuing a pattern of politicizing scientific advisory panels that are supposed to give unbiased recommendations. Democratic lawmakers complained last month about the apparently ideological composition of several panels within HHS, including one designed to advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on childhood lead poisoning.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the NIH, said that the committee will hold hearings early next year examining the Bush Administration's handling of advisory panels and their impact on public health, according to spokesperson Stephanie Cutter.

"The senator remains concerned that this administration is increasingly using ideology rather than science in its public health decision making," she said.

White House officials declined to comment on the reworking of the panel's charter, referring questions to HHS. HHS officials were not immediately available for comment.

© 2002 Reuters Ltd