Editor’s note: For a Q&A about stem cell research click here .
WASHINGTON (BP)–Largely overlooked in President Obama’s March 9 order lifting a ban on federal funds for stem cell research that destroys human embryos was his revocation of a policy promoting grants for ethical experiments.
In his executive order, Obama not only struck down President Bush’s 2001 directive barring money for destructive embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), but he invalidated a 2007 Bush order instructing that administration to ensure studies on stem cells with embryonic-like qualities are eligible for federal funds as long as they do not harm embryos.
Why would Obama withdraw the federal government’s support of research that has made remarkable advances beyond embryonic stem cell research since the 2007 order? Politics, for one thing, guessed three pro-life bioethicists.
“Sadly, I think the Obama administration’s decision was all about politics and very little about science,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a bioethics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Politically, the best thing to do was to clear the table of everything with Mr. Bush’s fingerprints on it in order to remain in the good graces of the Obama constituents.”
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, told Baptist Press he thought “it was a political slap in the face to the president and his supporters. There was no need to do that at all.”
Bioethics commentator Wesley Smith wrote on his weblog he could come up with only two possible reasons for Obama’s revocation of the 2007 order: “First, vindictiveness against all things ‘Bush’ or policies considered by the Left to be ‘pro-life;’ and second, a desire to get the public to see unborn human life as a mere corn crop ripe for the harvest.”
Obama’s order came in the wake of some dramatic discoveries by stem cell scientists after Bush’s June 2007 directive.
In November 2007, research teams from Japan and Wisconsin reported they had reprogrammed adult skin cells into stem cells with properties nearly identical to embryonic ones. Federal funds partially underwrote the Wisconsin research.
In the months that followed, other scientists continued to make progress in finding simpler ways to convert adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells. On March 2, only a week before Obama’s order, the journal Nature reported British and Canadian researchers had discovered a safer method for reprogramming adult skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells, providing a breakthrough in this field of cellular research. The scientists were able to convert the adult cells without using a virus, which the Japanese and Wisconsin teams had used in their studies.
The use of viruses in such research presented problems, because there were concerns about cancer developing in patients. The latest discovery provides the possibility of a vast supply of embryonic-like stem cells for safe use in patients who are less likely to reject them because they come from their own tissue.
The reprogramming method produces what are known as “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.” Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Non-embryonic stem cells, often referred to as “adult stem cells,” are regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types.
Embryonic stem cell research, however, has at least three drawbacks: 1) Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being; 2) it has yet to produce any therapies in human beings; and 3) it 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. Extracting non-embryonic stem cells does not harm the donor.
Research on iPS and other non-embryonic stem cells may suffer as a result of Obama’s March 9 order, some bioethicists fear. The president instructed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to produce guidelines on federal funding of stem cell research within 120 days. The result could be an emphasis on grants for embryonic stem cell research and a vastly more liberal regime, one that produces vast numbers of destroyed embryos with the incentive of government money.
“I think there’s a serious concern that not only will this open it up for more embryonic stem cell research and more embryo destruction, but that some of the money that is going to good ethical research and research that is already treating patients … will flow toward the unethical research,” Prentice told BP.
Obama’s revocation of the 2007 order “strips away any sort of regulation and allows NIH to do whatever they might want to do,” Prentice said.
Mitchell told BP, “My guess is that the NIH guidelines will take their cue from the U.K., a country with the most promiscuous embryonic research protocols of any nation in the world.”
Among other policies, Britain permits the cloning of human embryos for research purposes.
Bush’s August 2001 rule permitted grants for experiments on embryonic stem cell lines, or colonies, already in existence, while prohibiting research on any lines created after his order. Congress twice approved legislation to liberalize Bush’s policy, but he vetoed both bills. Efforts to override the vetoes failed.
His June 2007 executive order encouraging federal support of pluripotent stem cell research that does not harm embryos came on the occasion of one of his vetoes of legislation to undercut his policy. At that time, Bush also gave NIH’s Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry a new name, the Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Registry, “so it reflects what stem cells can do, instead of where they come from,” he said.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press.