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Ethicists: Obama misrepresented his own stem cell order during press conference

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

WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life ethicists have challenged President Obama’s March 24 description of his recent executive order involving destructive stem cell research.

In his nationally televised news conference, the president did not represent accurately the content or effect of his stem cell order nor did he demonstrate he actually had grappled with the ethical issues involved, despite his contention to the contrary, the ethicists said.

Asked late in the hour-long news conference about his March 9 order lifting a ban on federal funds for stem cell research that destroys human embryos, Obama said “the guidelines” he provided passed the test of being “strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines.”

“What we have said is that for embryos that are typically about to be discarded, for us to be able to use those in order to find cures for Parkinson’s or for Alzheimer’s or for … all sorts of other debilitating diseases, juvenile diabetes, that … it is the right thing to do,” the president told reporters, according to a transcript published by The New York Times.

Obama said he is “glad to see progress is being made in adult stem cells. And if the science determines that we can completely avoid a set of ethical questions or political disputes, then that’s great…. I have no investment in causing controversy. I’m happy to avoid it if that’s where the science leads us.

“But what I don’t want to do is predetermine this based on a very rigid ideological approach,” he said. “And that’s what I think is reflected in the executive order I signed.”

His order, however, did not include guidelines, the pro-life ethicists pointed out.

“I’m a little puzzled at the president’s statement about guidelines, since he didn’t set guidelines but instead called for the National Institutes of Health to come up with guidelines” within 120 days, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Yuval Levin wrote on National Review Online, “The trouble with this is that Obama’s executive order didn’t actually do any of it…. [I]t included no ethical guidelines at all, leaving those to the NIH to decide later. Obama seemed to suggest his rules would allow funding only for the use of cell lines from embryos whose parents turned them over to researchers and were otherwise going to discard them. Whatever you think of that practice, the president’s executive order established no such rule, and many of his supporters have praised him for avoiding it.”

Levin, former executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s program on bioethics and American democracy.

Based on Obama’s executive order, NIH “could, theoretically, fund stem cell lines taken from embryos created explicitly for the purpose of being destroyed,” bioethics specialist Wesley Smith wrote on his weblog.

Smith also said the nature of Alzheimer’s makes it unlikely to be cured by embryonic stem cells — a reality acknowledged even by some scientists who support embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).

The ERLC’s Land said he was “glad to hear President Obama reiterated that moral concerns are one of the primary components of any decision related to research that involves human life.”

Yet, he and “many other pro-lifers are dismayed that he seems to equate the pro-life position with a ‘rigid ideological approach.’ What to some may appear to be rigidity, to others are profound, unchanging, moral convictions,” Land told Baptist Press.

Smith said Obama himself based “his order on a very rigid ideological approach that views nascent human life [as] so much chopped liver. Indeed, as far as I can tell, he took federal funding just as far as the law” permits.

Land said he is pleased the president “is open to alternative approaches that would not require the sacrificing of our preborn citizens in order to harvest their stem cells.”

Among such alternatives produced by scientists are induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are reprogrammed adult stem cells that have the properties of embryonic stem cells and do not require harming embryos. The adult stem cells can be found in, for instance, skin cells.

“If President Obama means what he says, then all he has to do is urge NIH to give maximum support to research with induced pluripotent stem cells rather than harvesting the stem cells from human embryos, who then die,” Land said. “Not to put too fine a point on it — the use of stem cells harvested from embryos is becoming scientifically obsolete and unnecessary as we speak.”

In his order, however, Obama rescinded a 2007 order by President Bush designed to ensure studies on stem cells with embryonic-like qualities are eligible for federal funds as long as they do not harm embryos.

About how much he had “wrestled with the morality or ethics” of funding experiments that destroy human embryos, Obama said, “I wrestle with these issues every day.

“Look, I believe that it is very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines, when it comes to stem cell research or anything that touches on … the issues of possible cloning or issues related to … the human life sciences.

“I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion,” the president said.

“If he really wrestled with abortion, he lost the bout!” Smith wrote, citing Obama’s opposition to minimal restrictions on abortion and apparently to conscience protections for pro-life, health-care workers.

Levin said the president’s response “contains absolutely no discussion of the ethical issues. What is it he is wrestling with? What issues ‘are critical?’ What do the ‘strong moral guidelines’ need to involve?”

Obama’s March 9 order overturned Bush’s 2001 rule barring 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 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 donor. ESCR has yet to provide treatments for human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Human trials using stem cells from non-embryonic sources, however, 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. Among the afflictions treated by non-embryonic cells are cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries, according to Do No Harm.

Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor.
Tom Strode is Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.