Obama Lifts Federal Funding Ban on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

President Obama ended the ban on federal funding of stem cell research in a White House ceremony Monday. Video by AP
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

President Obama lifted the eight-year-old ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research yesterday, putting the weight of his office, he said, on the side of scientists who believe "these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases."

The executive order marks the third time in his young administration that Obama has reversed Bush-era policies at the intersection of public-health goals and ethical questions about the nature of human life. The president previously -- and without public ceremony -- lifted the prohibition on U.S. funding for international groups that promote abortion and proposed rescinding job protections for health-care workers who decline to carry out procedures that conflict with their moral beliefs.

Obama acted more publicly Monday in moving to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, fulfilling a campaign pledge on an issue that is popular with Democrats and divides Republicans. 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, "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.

During his campaign, Obama promised to make scientific innovation a guiding principle of his administration, and he has tapped accomplished members of the scientific community for senior advisory positions. The withering economy has consumed much of his agenda so far, but political analysts say he has been careful not to ignore campaign pledges on social issues currently on the edges of the national debate that were nonetheless central to his election.

"He is working systematically through these various things, some of which, like this one, are not essential to the immediate issues of the day but get rolled out to fulfill his commitments and connect with his electoral base," said Mark A. Peterson, a professor of public policy and political science at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. "I think it's all very orchestrated, and there's probably, and I'm only guessing on this, a schedule of working through these items."

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 his remarks to an audience that included people in wheelchairs and others using guide dogs, Obama said, "In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent."

In August 2001, President George W. 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 that offered a summary of his personal ethical debate on the subject.

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 his administration would support those initiatives.

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