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Critics: Stem cell order unethical & unnecessary

Editor’s note: For a Q&A about stem cell research click here .

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Obama overturned March 9 a prohibition on federal funding of stem cell research that destroys embryos, drawing protests from supporters of the previous policy who said his action is both unethical and unnecessary.

Signed at a White House ceremony, Obama’s executive order rescinded a policy instituted by President Bush in August 2001. Bush’s rule barred the use of federal funds for stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos. Bush permitted, however, grants for experiments on stem cell lines, or colonies, already in existence.

Because of their ability to develop into other cells and tissues, stem cells provide hope for producing cures for a variety of diseases. Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. Extracting stem cells from an embryo, however, destroys the tiny human being. Embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide any treatments for humans.

Obama’s order lifted the previous policy but left the details on funding to the National Institutes of Health, which is to issue guidelines within 120 days.

The president’s action was expected. A supporter of funds for embryonic stem cell research while in the U.S. Senate, Obama pledged in February to reverse Bush’s policy. The predictable nature of the action did little to cushion the blow for embryonic stem cell research foes.

“This is a sad day for the sanctity of all human life in America,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The president, he said, “has declared open season on unborn babies, allowing them to be destroyed for the sole purpose of harvesting their embryonic cells and tissues in the hopes of discovering treatments for maladies and diseases affecting older and bigger human beings.

“President Obama’s authorization of federal funding of this research has the double effect of greatly increasing the number of babies killed and requiring tens of millions of Americans who find such research morally reprehensible to be forced to subsidize it through the use of their tax dollars,” Land said.

“Many supporters of the president’s decision have erroneously hailed this as removing politics and ideology from science,” he said. “In fact, it is an attempt to remove morality from scientific research. History, from the Third Reich and elsewhere, teaches us such a shift is a steep and slippery slope to a dark, depraved and dangerous destination.”

Obama’s order flies in the face of research results, Land and other critics said.

Human trials using stem cells from non-embryonic sources have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human beings, despite the fact such cells are not considered pluripotent, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor. In addition, scientists have discovered in the last 16 months ways of converting adult cells into cells that have nearly the identical properties of embryonic ones. Such cells are labeled induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

“Funding ESCR is unethical, unnecessary and another example of the Obama administration’s wasteful spending practices,” said C. Ben Mitchell, bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the ERLC. “Amazing advances in medical science are coming from adult and iPS stem cell research. The president should direct his concern towards these sources of stem cells.

“Mr. Obama must surely know what it means for a society to regard certain members of the human race as less than persons. He should be calling for the emancipation of human embryos through adoption, not authorizing the funding of their destruction,” Mitchell told Baptist Press.

Speaking to congressional, scientific and lobbying advocates of embryonic stem cell research funding before signing the order, Obama said the previous administration had “forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

His administration will enforce “strict guidelines” to make certain the research is “both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted,” Obama said. “[W]e will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.”

Land and other foes of the new policy pointed out the president’s statement did not eliminate the possibility of cloning embryos for research.

“Most experts believe [the current] supply of embryos will soon be exhausted by federally funded research demands, and this will build pressure to allow embryos to be created by cloning for the sole purpose of harvesting their cells before they reach 14 days’ gestation,” Land said. “President Obama made a chilling allusion to this when he said the guidelines ‘will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction,’ which of course, leaves open the specter of legalizing cloning for supplies of embryonic stem cell purposes.”

The president called for Congress to provide more support for embryonic stem cell research.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., was among members of Congress who declared their opposition to Obama’s action.

“The administration’s policy change does not answer the central question: Do human embryos, which are clearly alive, constitute a life or mere property?” Brownback said in a written statement. “If an embryo is life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes. If embryos are property, then they may be disposed of as their owner chooses.”

Critics of the Bush policy enthusiastically welcomed the change.

“Today, thanks to the action taken by President Obama, we stand in triumph,” said Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. She attended the White House ceremony. “President Obama has replaced eight years of frustration with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the 100 million Americans suffering from cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating diseases and disorders.”

While ESCR has yet to produce therapies for any of those ailments, non-embryonic trials in human beings have resulted in treatments for such afflictions as cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, according to Do No Harm.

Embryonic stem cell research also has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Congress twice approved legislation to overturn Bush’s policy, but he vetoed both bills. Efforts to override the vetoes failed.

Obama’s executive order did not affect a 1996 federal law that prohibits federal funds from being used for the creation of human embryos for research, as well as experimentation that destroys or threatens the health or life of embryos. That measure, known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, now may come under attack in Congress, however.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is part of the annual spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, so Congress has to approve it each year for it to remain in effect. The measure is named after its lead sponsors, former Republican Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker is now a member of the Senate.

At the White House ceremony, Obama also signed a memorandum calling for a policy “restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.”
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.