Bush sneaks religion into science: Embryos are ‘human subjects’

by Matthew Brophy

Anti-abortion dogma is being smuggled into our scientific legislation. The George W. Bush administration recently slipped into a federal advisory committee charter the proclamation that embryos are now to be considered “human subjects” whose welfare in scientific research must be considered along with fetuses, children and adults. Embryos are clusters of cells that constitute the earliest stage of human development.

The charter’s revision represents the latest political victory for the anti-abortion movement. “It lays another stone on the pathway to overturning legal abortion,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

The addition of embryos in this charter is the latest effort by the Bush administration to manipulate obscure health policies to pander to anti-abortion groups. Though the change was reportedly completed in October, it was revealed, quite strategically, just six days before the federal mid-term elections.

The anti-abortion camp celebrated the change in policy. Anti-abortion groups characterized the decision as a powerful symbol the Bush administration considers the rights of embryos on par with those of fetuses, children and adults. “We applaud the Bush administration in this decision for recognizing the humanity of the embryo,” said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council.

Critics called the move an inappropriate political and religious intrusion into a scientific advisory committee meant to improve research protections. “We do not think that an entity that is designed to protect human subjects of research is the appropriate place to deal with the regulation of reproductive tissues, be they sperm, eggs or embryos,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Robert Rich, executive associate dean of research at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and a former committee member said, “I’m very concerned that this addition (of the word ’embryos’) will serve to seriously politicize the reconstituted committee. Ö 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.”

Marcy Wilder, a former deputy general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “This could be the next step in according embryos new legal rights and the status of the person under the law. We’re seeing the politicization of what should be a scientific advisory committee.”

Depending on who the administration handpicks to sit on the committee, its actions could result in greater restrictions on embryo research at fertility clinics, universities and laboratories and also result in “special protection” to embryos left over from in vitro fertilization treatments. Current scientific research has focused on embryos to gain new understanding of birth defects and infertility. Perhaps most significantly, embryos are a source for stem cell research, which promises the development of therapies to treat a variety of debilitating diseases.

New committee members have not yet been chosen, but an administration official told the old panel members that the department hopes to include one of the founders of the National Right to Life Committee, Mildred Jefferson.

The Bush administration’s crusade to politicize scientific advisory panels – panels originally created to provide objective recommendations, unbiased by religious ideology – is finally coming under scrutiny. Last month, democratic lawmakers criticized several panels within the Department of Health and Human Services for its biased ideological composition. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing the National Institutes of Health, reported a committee will hold hearings early next year reviewing the Bush administration’s handling of advisory panels. Kennedy expressed concern the administration is increasingly basing its public health decision-making on ideology rather than science.

Just this September, the administration enacted a new policy allowing states to include “unborn children,” deemed from the moment of conception, in the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Maybe it’s only a matter of time until sperm and ova are given special rights as well.

Religious dogma has no place in scientific legislation. The religious conviction that embryos – clusters of cells – are ensouled beings belongs in church, not in our government. Each small, insidious step the Bush administration takes to inject religion into our secular government marks the imposition of the religious right’s views on our lives, our rights, our health and our future.

Matt Brophy’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]