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.
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."
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in January, 59 percent of adults surveyed said they supported loosening the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Forty percent of Republicans supported reversing the ban.
"I think this research holds out the greatest scientific promise right now than that of any other field," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), an opponent of abortion rights who attended the signing ceremony. "There are some deeply held moral concerns involved. On the other hand, I take the position that being pro-life means caring for the living as well as the unborn."
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged that "many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research." He said, "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and to work to ease human suffering."
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who co-authored legislation twice vetoed by Bush that would have expanded the federal role in stem cell research, said the House would move "quickly" to pass a bill in the hopes of turning Obama's executive order into law.
DeGette also said she has talked with the House Democratic leadership about beginning a review of other limits on how federal money can be spent on embryonic stem cell research. One 13-year-old rule, known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, prohibits researchers from using public money to create human embryos.
"We need to take a new look at that amendment and put a number of other issues on the table," DeGette said.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Chris Cillizza and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.