When President Obama announced his new embryonic stem cell funding policy last month, he left it to the NIH to set the rules, giving them no clear guidelines or ethical boundaries. Today, the NIH announced its draft funding rules, and while the picture on the whole is grim, it certainly could have been worse.
On their face, the new NIH rules are essentially the Clinton administration guidelines, which were published in 2000 though never actually put into effect. They would fund research on lines of embryonic stem cells derived from embryos created for reproductive purposes but not implanted, and turned over by their parents to be destroyed for research. The consent forms involved also have to demonstrate a degree of separation between the decision to produce embryos and the decision to make them available to researchers. The NIH will not fund the use of embryos created by human cloning, or those created by IVF specifically for research.
For those of us who oppose the destruction of human embryos for research, this is of course a grave and regrettable step in the wrong direction. The government will now hold out taxpayer money as an incentive for the destruction of embryos for the first time: saying to researchers in effect “if you destroy an embryo, you become eligible for these funds.” And while there are some limits—certainly more than I expected—on the funds, all the limits are prospective or theoretical: all the practices now going on can be funded, while cloning and the use of lines derived from embryos created specifically for research (neither of which appears to be happening at present) cannot. In a phone conference with reporters after today’s announcement, the director of the NIH was asked several times to explain why the agency excluded cloning and the creation of embryos for research and his answer each time was that at this point to his knowledge there are no lines produced from those sources and that the NIH can review these rules as the scientific times change, since they are agency rules and not an executive order or statute. The language of the rules and of the director in that call suggests this is a tactical decision not to get ahead of the scientists (and pay a needless political cost), so as to be able to keep up with them in the future. Not encouraging, but again it could be worse.
It could be worse above all because these rules have a practical and a symbolic significance. In practical terms, the NIH will now be able to fund just about all ongoing embryonic stem cell research with taxpayer dollars. But in symbolic terms, the message this sends is that even the NIH, even when left to itself and unconstrained by political masters, has to acknowledge that the destruction of embryos for research is not an innocent and unproblematic practice, but must be constrained for ethical reasons. These rules raise the question of why limits are necessary, and any serious answer to that question would lead us to conclude that these rules are inadequate. Although its answer is disappointing, it is good that the NIH has caused the question to be raised. These days, we take what we can get, and what will help us make our case in better days to come. A tiny silver lining anyway, on a very cloudy day.