Obama to Lift Ban on Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By Rob Stein
President Obama is planning to sign an executive order on Monday rolling back restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, according to sources close to the issue.
Although the exact wording of the order has not been revealed, the White House plans an 11 a.m. ceremony to sign the order repealing one of the most controversial steps taken by his predecessor, fulfilling one of Obama's eagerly anticipated campaign promises.
The move, long sought by scientists and patient advocates and opposed by religious groups, would enable the National Institutes of Health to consider requests from scientists to study hundreds of lines of cells that have been developed since the limitations were put in place -- lines that scientists and patient advocate say hold great hope for leading to cures for a host of major ailments.
Administration officials would not comment immediately other than to say "there will be a stem cell related event on Monday."
But an e-mail sent out today from the White House stated that officials were planning a ceremony on Monday "on stem cells and restoring scientific integrity to the government process. At the event the president will sign an executive order related to stem cells." Sources close to the issue, asking not to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the plan, said the order would lift the restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cells.
Because stem cells obtained from very early embryos are believed capable of becoming any tissue in the body, scientists believe they could lead to fundamental insights into the underlying causes of many diseases and repair damage caused by a host of ailments, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries. But extracting them destroys the embryo.
President Bush, seeking to prevent tax dollars from encouraging the destruction of more embryos, imposed the restriction on Aug. 9, 2001, limiting federal funding to studies of what turned out to be 21 cell lines that were already in existence as of that date.
The limitation, welcomed by those who believe that destroying human embryos is immoral, has been denounced by many scientists for severely hindering research one of the most promising fields of biomedical research.
The 21 cell lines that scientists have been permitted to study under the Bush policy have a variety of shortcomings, critics say. Many, for example, may have defects that could make them dangerous to transplant into people. But perhaps more important, hundreds of newer lines have been developed that offer a host of opportunities. Many lines, for example, carry defects for specific diseases.
Because of his long support for such research and repeated promise to repeal the restrictions, proponents expected Obama to lift the restriction in his first week in office, when he issued a flurry of executive orders to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, make government less secretive and lift a ban on funding international family planning groups that support abortion, among other things. But Obama did not, raising concern among advocates that he might be reconsidering his promise.
Opponents have argued that research on human embryonic stem cells has become unnecessary because of scientific advances in the interim, including promising studies involving adult stem cells and the ability to turn adult cells into cells that appear to have many of the properties of embryonic cells. But many scientists say it remains far from clear which cells will ultimately lead to the most important advances, making it crucial to continue to study both kinds.
Some opponents have suggested that Obama might qualify his executive order to try to take the sting out of the move as part of his effort to find common ground on divisive issues. But proponents expect Obama will simply lift the restriction without caveats and let the NIH work out the details.
In anticipation, the NIH has started drafting guidelines that would address the many ethical issues raised by the research, using as models templates compiled by the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
Advocates were especially concerned that the delay could force stem cell scientists to miss an opportunity to apply for some of the new funding the NIH is receiving as part of the stimulus package.
Despite the executive order, Congress is also likely to get involved by considering legislation designed to prevent any future presidents from reinstating restrictions.
March 6, 2009; 4:33 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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