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New committee to make recommendations
A new federal advisory panel that will provide ethical guidance for researchers engaged in studies involving human subjects has been charged by the Bush administration to consider human embryos to be human subjects, deserving of the same protections currently afforded fetuses, children, and adults. The committee will not have the ability to enact legislation. It can only recommend changes to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which would then choose whether to go through the legislative or rule-making process to enact a change in policy.
However, depending on whom the administration selects to sit on the committee, it could be the start of a process that could result in greater restrictions on embryo research at some fertility clinics, universities, and research labs, experts told The Washington Post Oct. 30. "I’m very concerned that this addition [of the word embryos’] will serve to seriously politicize the reconstituted committee," said Robert R. Rich, executive associate dean of research at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and a member of the now-defunct National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee. "Embryos are not included as human research subjects, according to [current federal regulations]. It will be impossible to gain consensus around this issue if appointees to the new committee represent both sides of this very contentious issue, since it is governed by emotions and beliefs and is really not amenable to rational or scientific discourse," he said.
The National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee was formed at the direction of President Clinton to recommend new protections for human volunteers in research trials following several scandals in which people participating in research trials were harmed. Following the change in administration, President Bush allowed the committee’s mandate to expire and announced the formation of a new committee, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, which now will advise DHHS on similar matters. At press time, no committee members had been appointed.