As General Counsel of the Department of Heath, Education, and Welfare in 1976, William Howard Taft IV drafted an opinion that
allowed NIH director Donald Fredrickson to promulgate the guidelines on recombinant DNA research without issuing, at the same
time, an Environmental Impact Statement. The official Environmental Impact Statement was released in October 1977.
Number of Image Pages:
3 (167,183 Bytes)
1989-03-07 (March 7, 1989)
Fredrickson, Donald S.
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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Guidelines as Topic
The Controversy over the Regulation of Recombinant DNA Research, 1975-1981
Joe Perpich visited today. He comes every few months or so to bring me clippings about HHMI's financial dog-fights with
General Motors, descriptions of the Third Program activities -- some of them fruition of ideas I left with him before I left
the President's chair -- or to reminisce on the earlier NIH or IOM days. As we sat around the comforting warmth of the
Jotul, he suddenly mentioned William Howard Taft III, about whom a satirical article had appeared in this morning's Washington
Post. It described Will's mild manner and pale complexion, accompanied by pictures showing him playing host to President
Bush and John Tower, the besieged nominee to head the Defense Department, left for the moment in the hands of Will, its General
Counsel and the highest ranking man in charge. Will had been Weinberger's counsel at the Pentagon for most of the latter's
tenure there. But there had been a gap between their association, of a few months when Will remained behind at the HEW, "Cap"
having left for Defense. It was during those months that Will Taft was the general counsel to Weinberger's
successor as Secretary of HEW, David Mathews, that he made two decisions of crucial importance to us, and to all those who
were eager to gain access to use of the central technology of recombing genes.
It was in April or May, of 1976. We had gone to Mathews, known widely as "The Phantom" because of the, tentative
nature of his public service. We had two requests, both vital to our plan to govern the use of recombinant DNA technology
by NIH Guidelines. A controversial and tortuous route had led us to two important
decisions. The first was an intent to insist that the government's permission to use the most remarkable techniques in
the history of biology would be according to guidelines, promulgated by the Director of NIH, rather than according to rulemaking,
necessitating far more cumbersome and inflexible conditions in which to achieve the essential new knowledge about the use
and possible dangers of the research. The second, parallel to the first, was our decision to promulgate the guidelines before
attempting to issue an environmental impact statement.
The lower echelons of the department's bureaucracy had sent memoranda to the Secretary denying our requests. The general
counsel staff had insisted that rule-making was the required route. The NEPA office had adamantly insisted upon a prior EIS.
We obtained permission to lay our case before the general counsel,
William H. Taft IV.
To our great relief, and to his credit, Taft overruled both his legal staff and the NEPA guardians. It was the opinion of
this pallid public servant that the NIH Director had previously demonstrated his authority to issue Guidelines to cover research
practices, and they should be adequate protection in this instance: further, the public interest was better served by guidelines
now and an EIS thereafter. Courage does not need the companionship of machismo.