Obama To Lift Restrictions On Stem Cell Research

President Obama is set to keep a controversial campaign promise. He'll overturn existing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on Monday. White House officials say he'll also sign a second order intended to further separate politics and science.

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President Obama is set to keep a campaign promise today. He will overturn existing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. White House officials say the president will also sign a second order intended to separate politics from science.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: So far, President Obama has reversed two Bush administration policies that were strongly supported by the pro-life community. Both were done quietly and out of public view. But that won't be the case today.

Mr. HAROLD VARMUS (Science Adviser to President Obama): The executive order that the president will sign lists limitations that were imposed by President Bush on August 9th, 2001 that restrict the use of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to work with cell lines derived before the date of his speech.

ROVNER: That's Harold Varmus, a science adviser to President Obama. Those cell lines he refers to are, of course, derived from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process. That's what makes the research so controversial. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells have the potential to turn into any cell in the human body, which is what makes them so promising to researchers.

Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette has been working to overturn the restrictions since they were first imposed. She says she still hopes Congress will write federal standards for the research funding into law.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): Congress is still going to pass legislation, in large part because we don't want to see this become a ping-pong ball between different administrations like international family planning issues and other issues have become.

ROVNER: Those are policies that switch back and forth, depending on which party controls the White House. Opponents of the embryonic stem cell research funding are already crying foul. Here's how Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Cantor put it on CNN.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): And, frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs. We don't want that. That shouldn't be done. That's wrong.

ROVNER: But what President Obama will also say is wrong today is letting science be dictated by ideology. Varmus told reporters that in addition to the stem cell executive order, the president will sign a memorandum to, quote, "restore scientific integrity."

Mr. VARMUS: We'll endorse the notion that public policy must be guided by sound scientific advice, and then we'll direct the Office of Science and Technology policy to ensure a number of effective standards and practices.

ROVNER: Congresswoman DeGette says that during the Bush administration, scientific policy was often dictated by things other than scientific evidence.

Rep. DEGETTE: It started with global climate change, where the Bush administration announced that they didn't really believe it was true, contrary to the scientific evidence. And then it moved all the way through abstinence-only sex education, stem cell research and many other issues.

ROVNER: The president's actions today will please many of his liberal backers, but they'll surely anger the social conservatives he's been trying to reach out to.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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