The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has released its final guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research. The rules allow the funding of research which uses stem cells harvested from fertility clinic embryos and also outline informed consent standards for women or couples who donate their embryos.
The guidelines, which implement a March 9 executive order issued by President Barack Obama, become effective July 7.
Msgr. David Malloy, General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has been critical of the NIH rules. In a May commentary on the guidelines, he said the rules were "broader or more permissive" than any previous research policy in key respects.
He also insisted it was a human right not to be subjected to harmful experimentation.
"As the President noted," Msgr. Malloy said, "we must not make ‘a false choice between sound science and moral values.’ In fact, these sources of guidance both point in the same direction, away from destructive embryonic stem cell research. His executive order and these Guidelines nonetheless insist on a course of action that is both morally objectionable and, increasingly, scientifically obsolete."
"This is not merely a political or ideological problem, or a problem of religious dogma, but a deeply human problem: We are testing the limits of our obligation to treat all fellow human beings, of every age and condition, with basic respect," Msgr. Malloy wrote.
There was doubt about whether the new NIH requirements for informed consent would have disqualified some existing stem cell lines, the Associated Press says. The NIH now requires documentation of voluntary informed consent from a woman or couple who donate the original embryo. They must have been told of other options for "leftover" embryos, such as donating to another infertile woman.
The NIH designed a compromise which deems old stem cell lines eligible for government research dollars if scientists can prove they met the spirit of the new ethics standards.
An NIH registry will list all cell lines that qualify.
Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington portrayed the informed consent guidelines as a "reasonable compromise" which will achieve President Obama’s stated goal of "advancing science while maintaining rigorous ethical standards," the Associated Press reports.
Stem cell research hopes to harness the power of adult or embryonic stem cells to create better treatments for ailments ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injuries. Embryonic stem cells are harvested by destroying human embryos.