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Obama's Stem Cell Research Policy: Needed Science Remains Banned and Constrained by Christian Fundamentalist Ideology

On March 9, 2009, Barack Obama announced what has been widely presented in the press as the “lifting of the ban on federal government support for stem cell research”. Reports gave the impression that the dark days of restrictions on governmental support and funding of embryonic stem cell research were finally going to be over. Some scientists spoke of the hundreds of millions of dollars of federal support for stem cell research that would soon be flowing and the many new lines of stem cells soon to be available for research.

Obama certainly worked to give this impression, both in his remarks during the signing of the executive order and in a recent speech he gave to the National Academy of Sciences (to thunderous applause). The executive order reads (in part):

“For the past 8 years, the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to fund and conduct human embryonic stem cell research has been limited by Presidential actions. The purpose of this order is to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry, to expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research ...”
Stem Cell Executive Order

And, on that same day, Obama also signed a Memorandum on Scientific Integrity. In his statement accompanying these signings he stated:

“This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

Signing of Stem Cell Executive Order and Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum (3/9/2009)

It appeared to many that Obama was truly standing up for science against the backward forces of the Christian Fundamentalist right.

But now, the new National Institute of Health draft guidelines for stem cell research have been issued and a more careful examination of these rules and of what has happened and how it has happened reveals a very different story. The truth is that while some changes may be made to open up and fund some forms of stem cell research, Obama's overall policy and moves mean that vital types of stem cell research are still banned and that stem cell research overall still remains fettered by the Christian fundamentalist position that there is something sacred about the fertilized human egg (i.e. the blastocyst, a clump of cells about the size of the period that ends this sentence) which should set a barrier to important scientific and medical research.

So what happened? What has changed since the Bush policy? And what has not changed?

For the past 8 years under Bush, Stem cell research has been subject to a two-prong form of governmental suppression: first at the presidential level and second via federal restrictions on funding from congress. And there remain state laws which prohibit embryonic stem cell research.

By executive order, federally funded embryonic stem cell research was confined to 78 existing stem cell lines. Of those, only about 20 lines were even usable. Some were duplicates. Some weren't available to license. Some were dead, and others too difficult to work with.

In addition, congressional law also precludes the NIH from funding any stem cell "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”. This rule, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, has been attached by Congress every year since 1996 to appropriation bills.

Obama's March 9 announcement only deals with Bush’s executive order, with a new Executive Order. But note well this language from this order:

Sec. 2. Research. The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law. (emphasis added by Defend Science)

The problem is that the law – the Dickey-Wicker amendment – represents an anti-scientific moral restriction on stem cell research.

As of this writing, the new NIH rules are not yet finalized but draft rules are published. It seems that federal funding will be permitted but only for stem cell lines created from embryos that would have been disposed from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. Even here however some have cautioned that new rules requiring donor consent might cause further restrictions. Donors of embryos no longer needed for reproductive purposes must be informed of all options for disposing of them; their written consent to donate them for research must be made separately from their decision to create them; and they must be able to withdraw consent until the embryos are used for research. During the Bush administration over 700 stem cell lines were created using private and state funding which did not require these standards – and these lines could thus be subject to disqualification.

It is worth repeating, Obama's executive order alone will not enable the NIH to go beyond Dickey-Wicker - to fund any stem cell "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”. Although during his campaign he supported “therapeutic cloning” and stem cell research generally, Obama has waged no fight to get this restriction over-turned; in fact, just two days after the stem cell executive order, he signed (without any comment on this issue) the most recent congressional appropriation bill which still includes this restrictive rider. While there is some talk in congress about rescinding Dickey-Wicker, the Obama team is not supporting this.

An article in the New York Times (Obama Is Leaving Some Stem Cell Issues to Congress, March 8, 2009) notes:

Mr. Obama has not taken a position on the ban and does not intend to, Melody C. Barnes, his chief domestic policy adviser, said Sunday. The president believes stem cell research "should be done in compliance with federal law," she said, adding that Mr. Obama recognizes the divisiveness of the issue. "We are committed to pursuing stem cell research quite responsibly but we recognize there are a range of beliefs on this," she said.

The proposed NIH rules also prohibit federal funding for research on stem cell lines created through a technique sometimes referred to as therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer.

The somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and replacing it with a nucleus from a different cell in order to create an embryonic stem cell line genetically identical to the donor nucleus. In the case of a class of donors who suffer from a condition like Parkinson's disease, the SCNT process would yield an embryonic stem cell line that could be used to test specific therapies for those patients.

Without allowing techniques like SCNT, stem cell research remains restricted. For example, it would be more difficult to locate and isolate IVF embryos from donors with specific diseases or conditions. Even where existing stem cell lines appear to have genetic markers for particular conditions or diseases, it is vital to have lines derived from techniques like SCNT in order to cross-check them. And none of this restriction is for any valid scientific reason.

Irving Weissmann, the director of stem cell research at the Stanford University School of Medicine has publicly protested these rules stating: “Instead of facts, the NIH placed its own version of ethics in place of the president's clear proclamation... As head of the National Academy of Sciences' panel that unanimously endorsed research using SCNT, and as a drafter of the guidelines for the International Society for Stem Cell Research, I know that this suggested ban on federal funding of SCNT-derived human embryonic stem cell lines is against our policies and against President Obama's March 9 comments. The NIH has not served its president well.”.”(Proposed NIH stem cell guidelines dismay leading Stanford researcher - Stanford press release, April 17, 2009)

There is clear scientific consensus in favor of therapeutic cloning for stem cell research. And there has been wide public support for stem cell research, including friends and families suffering from likely curable diseases and conditions (even Nancy Reagan) who were told by Obama they had his support including support for therapeutic cloning. The main reasons for this continued restriction on needed stem cell research techniques are not scientific but involve pandering to right-wing Christian fundamentalist forces.

The bottom line here is that although Bush is now out of office and Obama is in, extreme right-wing Christian Fundamentalists are still a major force in society relentlessly pushing their anti-scientific ideology and attacking science on many levels including impeding stem cell research. Obama’s administration is still letting Christian fundamentalist morality set the terms for what is and is not ethical stem cell research. This is grotesque and must not be allowed to stand.

While a lot of emphasis has been placed on the medical and therapeutic importance of stem cell research it is important to keep in mind the broader purposes and scientific vistas opened up by this vital research. The National Academy of Sciences report “Understanding Stem Cells” made this point:

Stem cells offer opportunities for scientific advances that go far beyond regenerative medicine. They offer a window for addressing many of biology’s most fundamental questions. Watching embryonic stem cells give rise to specialized cells is like peeking into the earliest development of the many tissues and organs of the human body. Stem cell research may help clarify the role genes play in human development and how genetic mutations affect normal processes. They can be used to study how infectious agents invade and attack human cells, to investigate the genetic and environmental factors that are involved in cancer and other diseases, and to decipher what happens during aging.

Any moves to continue to restrict and restrain this interesting and vital part of the human scientific endeavor represent a continuing attack on science and the scientific method overall, and stand as a barrier to potential cures for many difficult medical problems.

Obama, speaking recently to the National Academy of Sciences, stated:

“…we are restoring science to its rightful place. On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.” This is simply not true. Underneath the rhetoric, these current Obama stem cell policies continue to suppress stem cell research and to normalize and institutionalize the “back seat” position of science behind Christian Fundamentalist ideology. No one should be fooled. No one should accept this.

It is up to us – the scientific community and all those who understand the importance of science and scientific thinking – to step up the defense of science.

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