Tuesday, March 10, 2009
PRESIDENT OBAMA did the right thing yesterday when he reversed President George W. Bush's limitations on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The potential for cures and treatments of debilitating diseases with these versatile cells is enormous. But this type of experimentation is thick with ethical and moral questions, many of which Mr. Obama put off answering.
"We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse," the president said yesterday at the White House. But he offered little indication of where he would draw those lines. In effect since August 2001, Mr. Bush's limits were offered as a compromise between the needs of scientists and the moral and ethical convictions of those troubled by the stem cell extraction process that destroys the embryos. Mr. Bush permitted federal funding of experimentation, but only on stem cell lines that existed at the time of his announcement. In practice, those 21 viable stem cell lines proved too few, and many scientists said the restrictions were holding back research. The breakthrough in 2007 that made human skin cells function like embryonic stem cells has great potential. But there are still questions about the efficacy of that approach. Mr. Obama says he wants all types of experimentation in this arena to be done "responsibly."
Mr. Obama will allow federal funding to be used for stem cell research on lines derived from embryos since 2001 and into the future. He has directed the National Institutes of Health to devise within 120 days the guidelines that will regulate how this research is conducted. But will research be performed only on stem cell lines grown from the thousands of frozen embryos in fertility clinics that have been slated for destruction? Mr. Obama didn't say. The 1995 legislation known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment bans federal money from being used to create or destroy human embryos for research, but not research on stem cells from such embryos once they have been created.
Aside from saying, "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering," the president has not given a hint as to where he stands on some thorny questions. Should Dickey-Wicker be repealed? He leaves it up to Congress to decide that. Where does he stand on growing human embryos for experimentation in general and using them for stem cells in particular? It's unclear.
The White House said that Mr. Obama doesn't want to prejudge the NIH guidelines but that this will not be the last we'll hear from Mr. Obama on this subject. We hope not. Some of these ethical questions need to be dealt with in the political arena, and not just by scientists.