Administration oversold fetal-tissue plan, memos show

July 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In May, when the Bush administration announced a plan to collect fetal tissue for medical research into Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and other ailments, officials stated that they could supply all that would be needed without using tissue from induced abortions.

But newly obtained memorandums from officials at the National Institutes of Health show that the administration greatly exaggerated the amount of fetal tissue its storage bank could obtain from miscarriages and from ectopic pregnancies, in which the fertilized egg develops outside the uterus.

Since 1988, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and President Bush have barred federal financing of research using fetal tissue on the ground that it potentially could encourage abortions.

When the tissue-bank plan was put forth in May, in the heat of a political battle over abortion issues, Dr. James O. Mason, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, said that a storage bank could initially collect usable tissue from 1,500 fetuses a year and that eventually the figure would rise to 2,000.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said last week that medical experts remained confident that the tissue bank would fully meet researchers' needs.

But a top NIH official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the estimates of how much tissue could be collected had been misrepresented by senior HHS officials.

"The numbers we used were rounded upward, and upper-limit estimates were always used because we were under a great deal of pressure to use the absolute outer-limits numbers," he said. "What we came up with -- 1,500 or 2,000 fetuses could be harvested -- is literally the absolute maximum if you capture every single specimen throughout the entire country in every circumstance with a SWAT team of highly trained professionals in every bedroom and every hospital in the United States."

"No one but the ardent pro-lifers believes those numbers," he said.

But the administration is going ahead with plans to set up fetal tissue banks at six hospitals.

"We really intend to make a good-faith effort to determine if such a bank is at all feasible," the NIH official said. "We can gain a lot of knowledge in the process, and if it actually succeeds somehow, so much the better."

Experiments over the past decade indicate that transplanting of fetal organs or cells could help patients with such intractable diseases as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Transplant recipients can tolerate fetal cells better than adult cells, and preliminary research found that cells from healthy fetuses, usually 7 to 16 weeks, can take over the functions of diseased cells.

When Congress voted earlier this year to lift the ban, Mr. Bush vetoed the measure. The administration's plan was offered as a way of meeting the needs of medical researchers without compromising the president's long-standing opposition to abortion and abortion rights. Critics derided it as a maneuver to find votes to uphold the veto. Last month, the House fell 14 votes short of the two-thirds majority to override.

The president's Democratic challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, has said he favors lifting the ban.

The question in the fierce debate on Capitol Hill became this: How much usable, uncontaminated fetal tissue could be obtained if dedicated tissue banks were set up by the government?

Administration officials said there would eventually be tissue from 2,000 fetuses available for transplant each year, more than enough to meet the need. But privately, NIH officials expressed misgivings.

In a memorandum written in March, Dr. Jay Moskowitz, the associate director for science policy and legislation of the NIH, told higher officials of the Department of Health and Human Services: "The cells and tissues from spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies are generally of poor quality . . . ."

Data from the medical centers, the memo continued, indicated that the amount of tissue from spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages, "would not be sufficient."

"Obtaining an adequate supply of tissue from ectopic pregnancies, as previously indicated, is more problematic," the memorandum stated.

The staff of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations estimated 24 fetuses could be collected for the entire nation in a year.

Alixe Glen, a spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, said, "Our commitment to establish a fetal tissue bank is totally supported by medical experts who confirm that this bank would provide sufficient tissue to meet research needs."

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