President Barack Obama removed restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research put in place by the Bush administration, fulfilling a controversial campaign promise. He also issued on Monday a presidential memorandum intended to further separate politics and science.
"Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident," Obama said Monday. "They result from painstaking and costly research; from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit; and from a government willing to support that work," he said.
New Momentum For Stem Cell Research
The stem cell restrictions, imposed by former President George W. Bush, limited federal spending for embryonic stem cell research to a small number of cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001.
Bush's restrictions were strongly supported by the anti-abortion community, which contends that destroying human embryos is morally wrong. But researchers say many of the early cell lines have major drawbacks. Scientists have created hundreds of other cell lines since then, which have been off-limits to researchers who receive federal dollars.
Embryonic stem cell research is believed to hold the key for better treatments and possible cures for diseases, including diabetes and paralysis. The cells have the potential to turn into any cell in the human body, which is what makes them so promising to researchers. Proponents, from former first lady Nancy Reagan to the late actor Christopher Reeve, have long called for ending the limits on federal spending.
But the research is highly controversial because embryonic cells are derived from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.
And while the new order will allow researchers to use federal funds to work with new cell lines, a legislative ban on the use of federal dollars to create new stem cell lines remains in place.
The president said that he could not guarantee more research would lead to new treatments and cures, but that opening up new research was worth the gamble to "make up for lost ground."
The National Institute of Health now has 120 days to come up with new guidelines for the use of stem cells, which Obama said will include prohibiting the use of cloning for human reproduction.
Most research institutes are likely to wait to allow researchers to use federal funds for new stem cells until the federal guidelines are announced. Researchers will also still be subject to state regulations and the guidelines of their individual research institutions, which may be stricter than the federal requirements.
A Controversial Decision
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) has been working to overturn the Bush administration restrictions since they were first imposed. The next step, she said, is for Congress to write federal standards for the research funding into law, "in large part because we don't want to see this become a pingpong ball between different administrations like the international family planning issues and other issues have become." Those policies have switched back and forth depending on which party is in control of the White House.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research funding are already crying foul. Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) issued a statement asking Obama to "re-evaluate" his decision. "The president has rolled back important protections for innocent life, further dividing our nation at a time when we need greater unity to tackle the challenges before us," Rep. Boehner said.
Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor said on CNN that "federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning."
'Restoring Scientific Integrity'
Obama also signed a presidential memorandum on Monday directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making." The memorandum, Obama explained, would ensure that his administration's policies would be based on "the soundest science," and that scientific advisers be appointed "based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology."
DeGette says that during the Bush administration, scientific policy was often dictated by things other than scientific evidence. "It started with global climate change, where the Bush administration announced they really didn't believe it was true, contrary to the scientific evidence. And then it moved all the way through (to) abstinence-only sex education, stem cell research and many other issues," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.