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Fetal Tissue Research


Fetal tissue research became a subject of controversy in U.S. law following the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in ROE V. WADE, 410U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, which protects the right of a woman to have an abortion in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. After Roe, research performed on fetuses obtained from elective abortions came under close scrutiny.

In 1974, the National Research Act (Pub. L. No. 93-348) created a national commission to oversee research that involves fetuses. This body released research guidelines and also placed restrictions on what types of fetal research might be allowed to receive federal funding.

In 1988, NIH scientists requested approval from the DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES (HHS) to begin transplantation experiments using fetal brain tissue. Because the administration of President RONALD REAGAN was concerned about the link between fetal tissue research and abortion, the HHS imposed a temporary MORATORIUM on federal funds for research in fetal tissue transplantation. Although a 21-member NIH panel later approved the use of human fetal tissue for transplantation and disagreed with the contention that such research would cause more abortions, the moratorium was extended indefinitely by Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, of the HHS, in 1989.

In subsequent years, legislation to overturn the moratorium repeatedly failed in Congress. Then, shortly after taking office in 1993, President BILL CLINTON ordered the end of the moratorium (58 Fed. Reg. 7457). Later in 1993, Congress passed the NIH Revitalization Act, which permits the tissue from any type of abortion to be used for fetal tissue research. The law includes elaborate consent and documentation requirements that attempt to separate the mother's decision to abort from the decision to donate fetal remains. It also criminalizes the sale or purchase of fetal tissue and the designation of the recipient of fetal tissue.

Soon after President GEORGE W. BUSH took office in January 2001, the controversy over fetal tissue research found itself again in the public spotlight. In a nationally televised speech during prime time, the president presented new national policies involving embryonic stem cell research. An embryonic stem cell is a kind of master cell taken from a 5-day-old embryo that can develop into virtually any type of body tissue. Researchers believe those specialized cells could then be transplanted into patients to correct disorders such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease and spinal cord paralysis.

In his speech on embryonic stem cell research, the president announced a policy of continued—though severely limited—federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. This approval is strictly limited to 60 existing genetic lines of embryonic stem cells. Additionally, the president announced the creation of a council to develop federal guidelines and monitor embryonic stem cell research. He expressed concern over the conduct of embryonic stem cell research that had been privately funded, often done in secret, and conducted without regulation. But the limits imposed by the president, particularly those excluding new stem cell lines developed from embryos, will slow the pace of scientific discovery in this area.

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