Monday, March 9, 2009
Obama Lifts Bush’s Strict Limits on Stem Cell Research
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
The NEW York Times
Published: March 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — Pledging that his administration will “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” President Obama on Monday lifted the Bush administration’s strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research.
At a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, before an audience that included lawmakers, scientists and patients, several of them in wheelchairs, Mr. Obama announced that he was issuing an executive order intended to advance the research. He said he hoped Congress would follow with bipartisan legislation that would ease the existing restrictions even more.
The president acknowledged that studying stem cells extracted from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process, is deeply divisive.
“Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” the president said. “I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.”
But Mr. Obama went on to say that the majority of Americans “have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research; that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight the perils can be avoided.”
In making his announcement, Mr. Obama drew a strict line against human cloning, an issue that over the years has become entangled with the debate over human embryonic stem cell research.
He said that he would ensure that his administration “never opens the door” to cloning for human reproduction, adding, “It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society.”
Mr. Obama paired his executive order with another document, a presidential memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to “develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making.”
Taken together, the two actions are the latest in a series of rebukes by Mr. Obama to his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
Many Democrats criticized the Bush administration for politicizing science on a range of issues, from climate change to protecting endangered species to family planning.
Mr. Obama pledged during his campaign to chart a different course.
Already, abortion opponents are bracing for a battle over the stem-cell policy.
“The administration now steps onto a very steep, very slippery slope,” Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said in anticipation of Mr. Obama’s action. “Many researchers will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos.”
One Republican lawmaker, Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey, called Mr. Obama “the abortion president,” and organized an event Monday afternoon protesting the new policy. He invited some so-called snowflake children, those born after couples who underwent in-vitro fertilization released their remaining embryos for use by other couples, to attend.
“President Obama has chosen to turn back the clock,” Mr. Smith said in remarks prepared for the event, according to an advance text. “Human-embryo-destroying stem cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable, it is now demonstrably unnecessary.”
He was referring to progress that scientists have made using adult stem cells derived from nonembryonic sources, such as umbilical cord blood, bone marrow or skin.
Still, the president’s decision drew warm praise from a number of Democratic lawmakers. “Today, an extraordinary medical breakthrough was achieved with the stroke of a pen,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “With today’s executive order, President Obama has righted an immense wrong done to the hopes of millions of patients.”
The Bush administration, in a careful compromise eight years ago, allowed tax dollars to support studies on a small number of existing lines, or colonies, of stem cells that had already been derived from embryos, though not on creating new lines. That meant that a provision renewed by Congress every year since 1996, banning research in which embryos are destroyed, no longer stood as an absolute barrier to the stem cell work.
Mr. Obama’s new executive order will open the door wider, but not as wide as Congress would if it were to remove its legislative restrictions.
Because embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any type of cell or tissue in the body, many scientists believe they hold the possibility for treatments and cures for ailments as varied as diabetes, Parkinson’s and heart disease. Some researchers say stem cells may someday be used to treat catastrophic injuries, such as spinal-cord damage.
The promise that these advances might help bring a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other afflictions made Nancy Reagan an avid supporter of stem cell research. Her husband, the late president, suffered from Alzheimer’s.
Other prominent Republicans who opposed President Bush’s stance included Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who lost three family members to Parkinson’s, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.
Limitations on federally funded research in American laboratories gave an indirect boost to such work abroad, particularly in Britain, where it received unabashed support.
“The current policy is eroding our national advantage on stem cell research,” Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said during a congressional debate on the question in July 2006. “We’re tying our scientists’ hands. We’re holding back our doctors.”