President Obama overturns funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama


President Barack Obama on Monday overturned federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, claiming that the previous limitations forced "a false choice between sound science and moral values" and arguing that the research has the potential for significant medical cures.

He characterized the policy change as a restoration of "our commitment to science."

The change overturns President George W. Bush’s 2001 executive order which barred funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) conducted on embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001.

At the Monday signing ceremony at the White House, President Obama said:

"Today, with the Executive Order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers; doctors and innovators; patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield."

Arguing that there is no inconsistency between "sound science and moral values," he added:

"As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering.  I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research – and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."

Saying many "thoughtful and decent people" are conflicted about or strongly oppose ESCR, he professed to understand their concerns.

He also said that promoting science is about protecting "free and open inquiry" and letting scientists "do their jobs" free from "manipulation or coercion." He claimed to make scientific decisions "based on facts, not ideology."

The president argued that the majority of Americans have come to a "consensus" that ESCR should be pursued. He also noted bipartisan support for funding the research.

President Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain, also opposed President George W. Bush’s funding restrictions on ESCR.

According to President Obama, ESCR supporters believe "that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided."

Pledging to develop strict, rigorously enforced guidelines, President Obama said he would ensure that the government never "opens the door" to using cloning for human reproduction.

"It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."

Many embryonic stem cell therapies would require human cloning to produce stem cells which genetically match the patient. Proponents of the research try to distinguish between "reproductive" and "therapeutic" cloning.

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, a bioethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, has argued that the distinction is "widely misunderstood and misconstrued." In fact, he told the Massachusetts Senate Committee on Science & Technology in December 2001, there is no difference between the two.

"There’s only cloning, and the distinction comes later when you ask what will be done with the cloned human being after it’s manufactured," he said. "Will you implant it into a uterus, or will you contravene it to gain access to its harvestable cells and tissues?"

President Obama’s Monday remarks continued by noting that the potential of stem cell research remains "unknown" and "should not be overstated." He said some scientists believe the research has the potential to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and other conditions.

Such research may "regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair," the president claimed.

Saying government’s failure to invest in research misses opportunities, President Obama added "Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives."

Citing embryonic stem cell research advocate and actor Christopher Reeve, who predicted he could walk within ten years using embryonic stem cell research technology, Obama commented:

"Christopher did not get that chance.  But if we pursue this research, maybe one day – maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime – but maybe one day, others like him might."

Pledging to use every resource with renewed determination to lead the world in scientific discoveries, the president concluded:

"Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America."

While federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will likely result in more destruction of human embryos, the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment forbids funding which supports research in which embryos are created, destroyed or discarded. Federally funded researchers must acquire embryonic stem cells using private funding.

On Friday, ESCR funding backer Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) told Bloomberg that she would eventually like to alter the Dickey-Wicker Amendment so that researchers would be able to make lines of embryonic stem cells that reflect the genetic and ethnic diversity of the world’s people.

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