The National Institutes of Health [NIH] released the draft of its “Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research” on April 17, thus revealing the specific policy proposals that will expand federal funding for stem cell research using human embryos.

The proposed guidelines contain few real surprises, given the fact that legislative barriers to the direct destruction of human embryos remain in effect.  The main issue is the expansion of funding to include stem cells derived from human embryos created by in vitro fertilization in IVF clinics.  The remainder of the guidelines have to do mostly with informed consent procedures.

Here is the key section of the NIH statement:

These draft Guidelines would allow funding for research using human embryonic stem cells that were derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for that purpose. Funding will continue to be allowed for human stem cell research using adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. Specifically, these Guidelines describe the conditions and informed consent procedures that would have been required during the derivation of human embryonic stem cells for research using these cells to be funded by the NIH. NIH funding for research using human embryonic stem cells derived from other sources, including somatic cell nuclear transfer, parthenogenesis, and/or IVF embryos created for research purposes, is not allowed under these Guidelines.

In one sense, this policy is clearly temporary.  Sources close to the administration assured scientists that this was the best they could hope for until there is a further shift in public opinion.  Presumably, that means that the public will eventually grow accustomed to the use of stem cells from “excess” human embryos and will then grow less concerned about clonal technology.  Many scientists are determined to work on human stem cell lines derived from specifically engineered embryos.

The most reprehensible part of this policy is the reduction of the human embryo to an object for destruction on the way to scientific research.  The embryo is now a means to some other end — an end very different from that for which it was designed.  Rather than to grow into a mature human, the embryo will be destroyed, and its cells removed.

As I told USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman:

The destruction of any human embryo in the name of medical research undermines human dignity.  This new policy announced by the National Institutes of Health will lead almost immediately to the destruction of embryos now labeled as “excess” in the nation’s fertility clinics.  I am thankful that the Obama administration’s new policy does not go further than it does, though the limitation of new research to cells taken from embryos sourced from fertility clinics appears to be based in a political calculation, and not in any discernible principle.

The real scandal in this new policy is that these human embryos now in fertility clinics are to be seen as research commodities, possessing no special moral status.  This points to the fact that human dignity is subverted every time an embryo is created and not transferred into a womb.  Once abandoned and declared to be “excess,” the embryo is in maximum danger, for it is now treated as an object of only scientific worth.  This entire nation bears responsibility for these embryos — and most importantly the parents of these embryos are responsible.  It is tragic and unthinkable that parents would allow any of their offspring — at any level of development— to be destroyed in the name of medical progress, but this is exactly what this new policy represents.  Every single human being was once an embryo.  This “compromise” by the Obama administration now puts the human race on the fast-track to further commodification.

This policy is only made possible because we have allowed hundreds of thousands (or even more) human embryos to be created in IVF clinics — embryos with no hope of transfer into a womb.  These embryos are, to use the term now employed, “excess.”  It is nothing less than a moral scandal that these embryos were created under these circumstances.  In the name of creating life, these embryos were passed over for sentence of death.  Now, they are fodder for the laboratory.

With the arrival of these new draft guidelines, the embryos frozen down at the local fertility clinic are on their way to being out of sight, out of mind, and out of luck.