Obama Admin to Protect Human Research Subjects, Not Before Birth

Bioethics   |   Bill Saunders   |   Jul 25, 2011   |   4:23PM   |   Washington, DC

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that the federal government is contemplating ways to enhance the regulations of research on human subjects (known as the “Common Rule”). Acknowledging that research was conducted in a different manner two decades ago when the “Common Rule” was adopted, HHS is seeking comment in several areas, including areas related to informed consent.

Of course, protecting human research subjects is a noteworthy goal. All human research subjects—regardless of their stage in life—should be protected. All human research subjects should be able to give informed consent before research is conducted upon them. And traditionally, the federal government has rejected research that harms human embryos. Under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (an appropriations rider enacted each year), federal funds may not be used for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” (Pub. Law 104-99, s. 128, U.S. Statutes at Large 110 (Jan. 26, 1996):34).

However, under the Obama Administration, the federal government is funding research in which human embryos are involved. The Administration is defending its interpretation of Dickey-Wicker in federal court in the case of Sherley v. Sebelius.

So to put it bluntly, HHS under the Obama Administration will protect human research subjects—as long as they aren’t embryos.

Though the Obama Administration provides financial support for human embryonic research, there are no laws guaranteeing the legality of such research.  That is left to the states to decide.  Thus, it is up to the states to enact legislation that reigns in unethical (and, to date, futile) forms of research, and support and fund research that is actually benefitting human patients. As AUL has stated many times, adult stem cell research has already yielded treatments and cures for over 70 different diseases and conditions.

Unfortunately, in 2012 state legislatures considered very few measures related to regulation of biotechnologies.  For example, three states considered bans on human cloning (Minnesota, New York, and Ohio), and two states considered bans on destructive embryo research (Mississippi and Oklahoma). Contrast this to the at least twelve states that considered requiring or regulating insurance coverage for assisted reproductive technologies (Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania).

To be sure, the 2011 state legislative sessions were record-breaking when it came to abortion-related measures, and AUL applauds those legislators and state policy groups who worked tirelessly to protect women and the unborn from the harms of abortion. And AUL applauds North Dakota Senator Sitte, who sponsored ND HB 2215, an enacted bill that will ensure pregnant women know of their options for the donation of umbilical cord blood.

But in order to fully protect life in all its stages, a renewed focus must be placed on state laws protecting embryos from unethical research. The fate of hundreds of thousands of frozen-but-living embryonic human beings—with thousands added to their ranks with each passing year—lies in the balance.