WASHINGTON -- The battle over fetal-tissue research intensified yesterday as President Bush authorized the government to begin storing tissue from miscarriages and tubal pregnancies for experimental transplants but continued to bar the use of tissue from aborted fetuses.
Administration officials called the plan a "pro-research" and "pro-life" solution to a thorny ethics debate over using fetal tissue to try to find cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses that afflict millions of Americans.
At a Capitol Hill briefing, critics dismissed the fetal-tissue bank as an unworkable "smoke screen" designed to head off what could be Mr. Bush's first loss in a congressional fight over a veto.
Dr. Richard Robbins, who conducts fetal transplant research at Yale University, said tissue from tubal pregnancies and miscarriages "is neither safe nor easy to obtain. This tissue is very often genetically abnormal, very commonly infected and could carry subtle infections, such as the AIDS virus, which we are unable to detect."
About 750,000 women suffer miscarriages a year, about 100,000 of them in hospitals. Another 100,000 women have tubal pregnancies. From those, Dr. James Mason, assistant secretary of health and human services, predicted that about 1,500 to 2,300 tissue specimens could be obtained for research.
"It will be a more-than-adequate supply for the foreseeable demand," he said.
But Dr. Robbins said that in the four years since Yale established a privately funded tissue bank, the research center has been unable to obtain worthwhile specimens from a single miscarriage or tubal pregnancy, although it has "several hundred [specimens] from induced abortions."
The president's action comes as Congress prepares to take final XTC action on a bill to lift a four-year moratorium on federal funding for human research that uses tissue from aborted fetuses. Action on a House-Senate compromise could come as early as tomorrow.
The bill passed the Senate in April with a veto-proof margin. The initial House vote last year was about a dozen short of the two-thirds majority needed, but supporters say they are now close to having the votes to overturn a veto.
Crucial to the 87-10 Senate vote was the support of several leading anti-abortion senators, including Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Jake Garn, R-Utah, both of whom have diabetic children. Legislation to lift the ban would make it illegal to sell fetal tissue or to donate it.
Mr. Bush has vowed to veto the bill on the grounds that it would encourage women to have abortions by creating a demand for fetal tissue.
Senator Thurmond countered that safeguards in the bill would make that impossible.
"There's no way to make money out of this. None whatever. . . . There'd be no encouragement for a mother to abort in order to get the fetal tissue for her daughter or anyone else," he said.
At a White House briefing, Dr. Mason denied that Mr. Bush's plan was merely an effort to defuse congressional efforts to lift the ban.
"I think only the cynics sitting in this room would see this as forestalling effort in Congress," Dr. Mason told reporters as he outlined the administration's plan to establish the human fetal-tissue bank.
In its first year, the proposal would cost $3 million, Dr. Mason said, and eventually 20 medical centers around the country would have tissue banks.
"This is a pro-research president who is making tissue available so that we don't have to go to ethically questionable sources," Dr. Mason said. "President Bush is simply making a non-questionable source of tissue available."
Dr. Mason called it "a win-win for the researcher" and said, "It's pro-life as well."
The Rev. Guy Walden, an anti-abortion Baptist minister from Orlando, Fla., questioned the administration's reasoning, however. In 1990 his unborn son received the nation's first transplant from an aborted fetus.
Noting that the government pays for research using aborted human fetal tissue in animal studies, Mr. Walden asked, "How can this administration take the hypocritical stance . . . that it is more ethical to pay for this aborted tissue and put it into animals . . . than it is to take that tissue and . . . save my son's life?"
Dr. Robbins said that research in this country and Sweden has shown that transplanting fetal brain cells in patients with Parkinson's disease and putting fetal kidney cells into diabetics have slowed the effects of those diseases.