WASHINGTON – The Obama administration issued guidelines Friday limiting government-sponsored embryonic stem cell research to cells taken from excess fertility clinic embryos, a compromise based on its reading of public opinion about the cutting-edge science.
The decision fell short of the open-ended policy some scientists and patient advocates had hoped for but is far less likely to spark controversy. It also will mean that tax dollars could begin flowing as early as fall to projects involving hundreds of new stem cell clusters.
Raynard Kington, acting director of the National Institutes of Health, said Friday that the administration was guided by “broad public support” in establishing a policy that prohibits creation of embryos for research purposes as well as any type of therapeutic cloning.
Specifically, the NIH modeled its approach after legislation that twice passed Congress, he explained. Those votes are “the strongest indication of public support,” he told reporters Friday. “There is not similar broad support for using stem cells from other sources.”
Some proponents of aggressive research policies expressed disappointment in President Obama, who stressed a month ago that science ought not be hampered by political considerations.
“I am really, really startled,” said Susan Solomon, chief executive of the private New York Stem Cell Foundation. “This seems to be a political calculus when what we want in this country is a scientific research calculus.”
Researchers have long touted the potential of embryonic stem cells in treating an array of illnesses because of their unique ability to morph into any tissue in the body. Scientists say the stem cells could eventually lead to therapies for Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes.
But the work has always been controversial because extracting clusters of stem cells requires destroying the embryo.
In August 2001, citing those ethical concerns, President George W. Bush announced that federally funded research would be limited to two dozen cell lines that had already been harvested.
Last month, surrounded by patient advocates and prominent scientists, Obama signed an executive order lifting the Bush restrictions.
But Friday, one activist who had attended the Obama event complained bitterly that the process became “much more political than we thought it would be. This is extremely limiting,” he said, asking that he not be identified criticizing the president.
Others, however, hailed the guidelines as a practical approach to complex cutting-edge science.
Calling the policy “thoughtful and balanced,” Richard Laser, a spokesman for the nonpartisan think tank Third Way, said it “demonstrates President Obama’s commitment to finding shared values on an issue that has long been divisive.”
Scientists have long complained that the Bush-era restrictions severely slowed progress in one of the more promising areas of research today. The new policy focuses almost entirely on types of research that have been proved to be feasible, as opposed to certain types of cloning techniques that to date have not been successfully completed.