Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said yesterday that Harvard University's current embryonic stem cell research and plans to create cloned human embryos are all legal under state law, and she released documents filed by the university describing its research.
Harvard filed the documents with Coakley because of a law, passed in 1974, which could be interpreted to prohibit a wide variety of research using human embryos. The documents describe research announced by Harvard last year, a privately funded effort led by Harvard's Douglas A. Melton, that led to the production of 17 batches of embryonic stem cells that are being offered for free to researchers around the world.
The documents, released in response to inquiries from the Globe, provide a glimpse into the murky area of state law, with threats of heavy fines and jail time, that has rankled researchers and prompted widespread calls for changes.
''It is poorly drafted," Coakley said of the law yesterday.
Governor Mitt Romney and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini have said they would like to amend the law to make it clear that embryonic stem cell research is not criminal, but they disagree about what types of embryonic stem cell research should be allowed.
Romney said last week that researchers should be allowed to produce new embryonic stem cells from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, provided that a number of ethical safeguards are in place.
Travaglini, however, supports a broader measure that would also allow scientists to produce cloned human embryos for research, as long as these embryos are never implanted in a womb.
Scientists, including Melton, are interested in producing embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos, because that would give them a potentially powerful method to study diseases and perhaps find cures. Harvard has not begun this work, and the university has not filed any documents with Coakley's office concerning it.
Romney and other critics have said that the potential of the research does not justify producing embryos, which some consider to be the moral equivalent of a human life, solely for the purpose of research.
Melton and other scientists counter that the embryos are balls of some 200 cells, and should not be considered human lives.
Coakley said yesterday that she supported the broader Travaglini measure, a position also endorsed by state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly.
The law, known as Section 12J for its place in the General Laws of Massachusetts, was initially passed in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision that ensured women the right to choose abortion. The Legislature passed the measure to ensure that legalized abortion did not lead to gruesome experiments on human fetuses.
The law states that ''no person shall use any live human fetus whether before or after expulsion from its mother's womb, for scientific, laboratory, research, or other kind of experimentation." The law threatens violators with jail time of up to five years and a fine of up to $10,000.
Researchers say the law is confusing, though, because it stipulates that ''for purposes of this section, the word 'fetus' shall include also an embryo or neonate." The law was written long before scientists had discovered human embryonic stem cells.
The law requires researchers to obtain permission from an institution review board, a standard practice in scientific experiments involving human materials. Then the law requires the researchers to file an outline of the experiments with the district attorney for the county where the work will be done, along with a document outlining the review board's approval of the work and why the review board considers the work to be allowed under Section 12J. If the district attorney suspects that the work would not be allowed under Section 12J, the matter can be brought to Superior Court, according to the law.
The law also protects researchers who go through the process from criminal prosecution.
The Harvard documents released yesterday describe the Melton work and include a summary of reasons why the law's language does not apply to the research. In part, Harvard argued that the law was specifically designed to cover fetuses that had been in a womb. In a letter dated Dec. 19, 2001, a lawyer in Coakley's office agreed with the university's reasoning.
In addition to the documents from Harvard, Coakley also released documents yesterday on two other experiments, both from Genzyme in the early 1990s. One proposed work to extract the rare cells from a fetus that float in a mother's blood. The other was a method for analyzing the genetic material of embryos.
A spokesperson for the Suffolk district attorney's office, which would have jurisdiction over the hospitals and Harvard Medical School laboratories in Boston, said that the office has not received any documents from researchers under the law.
Gareth Cook can be reached at email@example.com.