A Moral Stand

Sunday, March 15, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S pronouncement on stem cell research last week, as we noted at the time, was only a partial decision. He decreed that federal funding of such research could go forward on a much broader scale than President George W. Bush had permitted. But he didn't say whether it could proceed on stem cells derived from embryos created specifically for the purpose of research. This is in large part an ethical question. Mr. Obama is right to turn to scientists for advice on the matter, but he should not hide behind them in making the ultimate decision.

Embryonic stem cell research is thought to hold great promise for the treatment of Parkinson's and other debilitating diseases and conditions. But many Americans are troubled by the destruction of human embryos that such research requires. As a result, Mr. Bush limited federal funding to research on stem cell lines in existence at the time of his 2001 decision; there would be no incentive for further creation or destruction of embryos for experimentation.

A breakthrough came in 2007: Scientists learned to develop stem cells from adult skin cells. Some argued that this would end the need to use embryos. Others, though, said that the field was too young to close off any avenue, and that the embryonic lines available under Mr. Bush's order had proved too limiting.

Mr. Obama accepted the latter argument, and we supported him. In so doing, though, he shunned a possible compromise: to allow research on stem cell lines grown from embryos that were created in fertility laboratories but never implanted. Thousands are frozen and awaiting destruction; with permission of the egg and sperm donors, they might satisfy researchers' needs. Mr. Obama did not embrace this opportunity to reach out to opponents -- not all of whom, of course, would have been satisfied by such a compromise.

The president has asked the National Institutes of Health to develop guidelines for research. Scientists can develop rules to make sure donors are dealt with ethically. If the scientists so believe, they can present reasons why existing frozen embryos aren't enough -- why research would benefit from having embryos created. But it's not the job of the scientist to decide whether those reasons outweigh concerns about such a practice. That's the president's job. He should listen to the scientists' arguments, make his decision and -- as Mr. Bush did in 2001 -- explain it to the American people.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company