WASHINGTON -- Declaring that the federal government has failed in its responsibility, two medical societies said yesterday that they would establish a board to set ethical guidelines for research involving fetal tissue and new reproductive technologies.
"We are acting to fill a moral vacuum created by the abdication of the federal government," said Dr. Kenneth Ryan, chairman of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School, speaking for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The board, to be called the National Advisory Board of Ethics in Reproduction, will set standards and develop safeguards against abuse, said Dr. Howard Jones, chief of the prominent fertility clinic at Eastern Virginia Medical School, speaking for the American Fertility Society.
For some time, disagreements over abortion policy have blocked federal support for research on reproduction or research involving the use of tissue obtained from aborted fetuses. But some researchers with funds from private sources have continued their work.
Among other goals, they hope to find improved methods of birth control, to help couples overcome difficulties in conceiving and to find ways to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other conditions using fetal tissue.
Both Congress and the Bush administration have let their panels on biomedical ethics lapse as a result of the political impasse over abortion, and the government now has no board to review biomedical issues or to approve experiments on fertilization of eggs outside the womb or transplants of fetal tissue.
The two medical societies will finance the board, which will have 15 members, including doctors, scientists, lawyers, ethicists and members of public interest and health groups. Dr. Ryan said the doctors and scientists would be a minority on the board so that it would have a broad base.
The panel will provide guidelines for researchers seeking an outside opinion on the ethics of research they plan to do. But researchers will not be obliged to consult the board, and its opinions will not be binding.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, objected to the new board, saying: "I see this in part as an attempt to undermine the policies that the federal government has established."
Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota, said yesterday that formation of the board was a step in the right direction, even if some people did not trust it to be neutral on the question of abortion.