A federal advisory panel Friday endorsed government support of human embryo research but called for public education to help people accept the idea of laboratory experiments with fertilized human eggs.
A committee that advises National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus voted unanimously to support government financing of human embryo research.The vote backed a detailed study that concluded that government financing of such research would help find ways to correct infertility and to improve understanding of birth defects and the formations of some cancers.
Government financing of human embryo research has been strongly opposed by a number of groups, and a committee that drew up the report was the target of a blizzard of protest mail, officials said.
Dr. Steven Muller, president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the advisory panel at NIH that two months ago recommended funding the research, said members of that committee received more than 50,000 pieces of mail, most of it protesting the idea of government support for the research.
"The public has no idea what human embryo research means, but to most people it does seem terrible," Muller said. "The extreme high level of public ignorance invites exploitation" by opponents to the research.
Based on such experiences, the director's advisory committee told Varmus that he should proceed cautiously in establishing a program of government support for the embryo research. The advisers recommended that Varmus establish a committee that would include members of the public to evaluate specific research projects and to consider ethical and moral issues involved in using human embryos for science.
How NIH responds to the study and the committee report is up to Varmus. The NIH director can decide if, when and how the agency would sponsor the human embryo research.
In a meeting on Thursday, Muller said that the whole idea of human embryo research "is a very hot topic that is not very well understood."
Most Americans, he said, "know very little about the intricate details of human reproduction," and groups opposed to the research have exploited this with a campaign that evokes grisly images of such things as "ripping flesh from the womb." The result, said Muller, may arouse widespread opposition to any government funding of human embryo research.
Muller's committee report called for NIH to fund human embryo research using leftover fertilized eggs from test tube baby clinics. Such eggs are often discarded anyway.
The report said these very young embryos "do not have the same moral status as infants and children," but they do merit "significant respect as a developing form of human life."
The report called for human embryo research to be limited to the first 14 days after fertilization. This would halt research at a point when the embryo is a tiny formless mass of cells with no developed nervous system. About 60 percent of all normally fertilized eggs are aborted around this time, usually spontaneously, without the mother even being aware of the pregnancy.
Two-week-old embryos have no consciousness and no sense of pain, the report said.
But many groups, such as the American Life League, hold that human life begins at the moment of conception and liken experiments with human embryos to murder.
Government funding of embryo research would mean "thousands of tiny boys and girls will be sacrificed," Judie Brown, president of American Life League, said in a statement. "It is imperative that Americans act now and stand together in opposition to this brutal attack on our tiniest brothers and sisters."
Muller said privately financed embryo research has been going on for years, often without the ethical constraints recommended by the committee.
He also pointed out that the research would use only embryos, not fetuses. A fertilized human egg is considered by most biologists to be an embryo until it begins to develop bone cells at about two months. Thereafter, it is known as a fetus.