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Obama's stem cell policy is welcome change, but ethics are permanent feature of debate

by Jesse ReynoldsThe Jurist online
March 18th, 2009

President Obama's recent removal of his predecessor's stem cell policy is a welcome development. The Bush administration's restriction on the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research was outdated and increasingly unpopular. While much of the media coverage of President Obama's announcement has focused on the research's potential and the political winners and losers, here are a few points that were overlooked:

For years, embryonic stem cell research in the US has been conducted in a federal regulatory vacuum, and the debate has been characterized by exaggerated rhetoric about imminent cures. Obama shifted the ground on both fronts. He ordered the National Institutes of Health(NIH) to draw up guidelines, which hopefully will be enforceable and apply to both publicly and privately funded research. The President also clearly called for a prohibition on reproductive cloning, which remains legal in the US and shares materials and methods with embryonic stem cell research. Furthermore, his language was optimistic but cautious; he noted that cures may not come in our lifetimes. This is a big change from advocates' over-the-top promises about Christopher Reeve's imminent mobility, personal biological repair kits on standby, and cures for all known maladies.

Although the details of the new stem cell policy remain unclear, the change is not actually that dramatic. Obama's executive order did not offer specifics; it passed that task to the NIH. Contrary to frequent misperceptions, it is not the case that the Bush administration banned embryonic stem cell research. Bush permitted federal funding for this work, although he limited it to research with lines that already existed at the time of his policy's debut, August of 2001. As more stem cell lines were isolated, the older ones seemed inferior and the policy became even less tenable. President Obama has previously voiced his support for federal funding of work with all lines derived from embryos that were created but not used in fertility treatments, regardless of their date of creation. The actual derivation of lines - the step in which embryos are destroyed - has been and remains off-limits due to a long-standing annual appropriations rider, one that's been adopted by Congresses and Presidents of both parties. Federal support of lines derived from embryos specifically created for research purposes remains prohibited as well.

Notwithstanding some claims, the new stem cell policy does not replace an "anti-science" one by "removing politics from science" and "restoring scientific integrity." All along, the human embryo research debates have hinged on ethics. There was a consistent, albeit tenuous, moral logic to Bush's policy. Most Americans, including myself, disagreed with it. Government financial support for and ethical constraints on science should be socially - and thus politically - negotiated. Future debates about ethical and social oversight of science should take that lesson from the stem cell controversy.

For more information, see our Stem Cell Research Frequently Asked Questions and Fact Sheet [PDF].



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