WASHINGTON – From tiny embryonic cells to the large-scale physics of global warming, President Barack Obama urged researchers Monday to follow science and not ideology as he abolished contentious Bush-era restraints on stem-cell research.
“Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama said as he signed documents changing U.S. science policy and removing what some researchers have said were shackles on their work. “It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”
The most immediate effect will allow federally funded researchers to use hundreds of new embryonic stem cell lines for promising, but still long-range, research in hopes of creating better treatments, possibly even cures, for conditions ranging from diabetes to paralysis. Until now, those researchers had to limit themselves to just 21 stem cell lines created before August 2001, when President George W. Bush limited funding because of “fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.”
Obama’s executive order marks the third time in his young administration that he has reversed Bush-era policies at the intersection of public-health goals and ethical questions about the nature of human life. The president previously lifted the prohibition on U.S. funding for international groups that perform abortions and proposed rescinding job protections for health care workers who decline to carry out procedures that conflict with their moral beliefs.
In signing the order and a second memo designed to wall off scientific research from political influences, Obama said a majority of Americans support lifting the federal funding ban, which would allow researchers to begin using hundreds of already-created embryonic stem cell lines for work on cures for cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s and other illnesses.
The president, speaking to an exuberant crowd gathered in the East Room of the White House, cast the decision as a clear departure from the Bush administration, often accused of using selective scientific findings to support its ideological views on climate change, health care decisions, and other issues. Obama said that “promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s also about protecting free and open inquiry.
“It’s about letting scientists like those who are here today do their jobs free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient,” Obama said to applause.
Embryonic stem cells are particularly valuable to researchers because they can develop into any type of cell in the body. But many social conservatives oppose using the cells for research because they are extracted from days-old human embryos, a practice that, while already permitted in private fertility clinics and research centers, will now be eligible for billions of dollars in federal funding.
In 2001, Bush limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the 21 stem cell lines in existence at the time. Although he acknowledged the research value, Bush said that “extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life.”
“Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being,” Bush said in a nationally televised speech.
Anti-abortion groups and some conservative Republican lawmakers denounced Obama’s order on ethical and practical grounds.
Scientific advances have helped transform regular adult cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells, and Obama said those initiatives would be supported by his administration.
Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the House Republican whip, said in a statement that “today’s action is about forcing taxpayers to fund ethically troublesome – and unproven – research that destroys life.”
“Nearly every American supports continued stem cell research, and Republicans laud the miraculous innovations made in ethical and sensible adult stem cell research,” he said.
“Unfortunately, today the administration wasted an opportunity to unite our country around these ethically and scientifically sound innovations by allowing the use of taxpayer money for embryo-destructive stem cell research, which millions of Americans find morally reprehensible.”