A National Institutes of Health advisory committee recommended Friday that medical research using tissue from intentionally aborted human fetuses receive federal backing.
Although all the votes taken by the 21-member panel of outside medical, ethical, religious and legal experts were tentative, the panel's chairman acknowledged at a news conference that he could not visualize a reversal of the fundamental recommendation.The vote to "recommend that research proceed" was 19-0 with two abstentions.
The recommendation sets up a possible confrontation with the White House where one adviser to President Reagan has made clear he wants to push for an executive order banning federal involvement in such research. However, it remains unclear whether that stance by adviser Gary Bauer has direct support from Reagan or other top administration officials.
Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen told reporters Thursday he has no intention of taking a position on the matter until NIH officials have conducted a full review and said that could take several months. Bowen said that while he is personally opposed to abortion, the procedure is legal and suggested it would be a "waste" not to use fetal tissue for treating Parkinson's and similar diseases.
Bowen also said it was unclear to him whether Bauer's memo reflected Reagan's wishes or the adviser's own.
The committee chairman, retired federal appeals Judge Arlin M. Adams, defended the makeup of the panel, which has been criticized by some anti-abortionists as being skewed in favor of allowing fetal tissue research.
Adams said he helped pick the panel and did so without knowledge of the members' personal views on abortion.
He said a reading of his own opinions while a judge would reflect that he was "very concerned about abortion."
"I didn't know how I was going to vote until I had heard the testimony," said Adams, who voted in favor of allowing the research.
Dr. Kenneth J. Ryan, head of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, acknowledged that fundamental questions about the morality of abortion were "in the background hovering over us all the time."
Ryan, chairman of the scientific issues portion of the committee meetings, said it was a testimony to the intellect of the committee members that even some of those with personal reservations about abortion were able to divorce those beliefs from the question of whether the remains from legal abortions could ethically be used in research.
"The key to the three-day meeting was "can you divorce the two," he said. "It was a kind of tug of war whether you could or could not divorce it."
After spending several hours Thursday night and most of the day Friday discussing the fundamental question of whether it would be acceptable ethically to use purposely aborted fetal tissue in research, the panel was left little time to consider details of the safeguards it concluded must accompany such a policy.
It did reach agreement that "a pregnant woman should not be induced to terminate pregnancy in order to furnish fetal tissue for transplantation or medical research."
It also agreed that the mother's decision to have an abortion should be kept separate from her decision to allow the remains to be used for research and that guidelines must be drawn to avoid commercialization of fetal tissue, perhaps similar to the rules governing the handling of hearts, kidneys and other organs used for transplant.
As part of those basic guidelines, the panel suggested that anonymity be maintained between the donor and recipient and that the timing and method of abortion not be influenced by potential uses of the fetus for research.
Although there was a distinct consensus on what safeguards the committee wants to see in its final recommendations, most were not put in writing.
"I'm not even sure what I voted on because I voted on so many principles without words," said Georgetown University law professor Patricia A. King.