President Obama, lifting an eight-year limit on federal funding of stem cell research, today portrayed his decision as part of a broader move to focus on science instead of politics.
Besides signing an executive order (read it here) reversing the Bush administration restrictions, Obama is also issuing a presidential memorandum (read it here) 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 goal, the president said: "To ensure that in this new administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisers based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions."
On embryonic stem cell research in particular, Obama acknowledged the religious-based opposition. But he said there is an ethical way to do such research.
"Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," he said in the East Room of the White House, filled with advocates of stem cell research who cheered and applauded his annoucement. "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 a capacity and will to pursue this research -- and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."
Under Bush's order, taxpayer money could only be used for research on a small number of stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Since, hundreds more stem cell lines have been created, but off-limits to federal funding.
While urging Congress to give more money to stem cell research, Obama is leaving to Congress the particularly controversial issue of whether taxpayer money should be used to experiment on embryos themselves. A congressional ban has been in place since 1996. He also made clear he opposes cloning for human reproduction.
The president also said that while stem cell research holds much promise in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, there is no certainty.
"But that potential will not reveal itself on its own," Obama said. "Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. 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.
"Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek," he added. "No president can promise that. But I can promise that we will seek them -- actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground. Not just by opening up this new frontier of research today, but by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.
"I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted."
Some patients, who could be helped by such research, attended the ceremony.
One was former Communications Workers of American vice president Pete Catucci, who was diagnosed with ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in early 2007.
“Stem cell therapy is real. It’s time the United States caught up with the rest of the world and moved forward on this critical research," Catucci said in a statement. "I am grateful to President Obama for reversing the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research that’s blocked so much important research over the past eight years.”
But one vocal advocate was not. Actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a horse-riding mishap and whose crusade Obama noted.
"Christopher once told a reporter who was interviewing him: 'If you came back here in ten years, I expect that I’d walk to the door to greet you,' the president said.
"Christopher did not get that chance. But if we pursue this research, maybe one day – maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children’s lifetime – but maybe one day, others like him might."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts issued a statement praising Obama's move.
"Sometimes medicine advances through inspired discoveries in the laboratory, and sometimes through brilliant insights at the patient’s bedside. But today, an extraordinary medical breakthrough was achieved with the stroke of a pen. With today’s executive order, President Obama has righted an immense wrong done to the hopes of millions of patients. The President’s action today unlocks the enormous potential of life-sustaining medical progress against a wide range of serious illnesses and injuries, all within strong ethical guidelines.”
So did Kennedy's Bay State colleague in the Senate.
“Today’s announcement is a long time in coming,” Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement. “Finally an American President has reaffirmed our country’s commitment to potentially lifesaving, ethical stem cell research. For the past eight years, not only has scientific progress been restricted, but the best hopes for a dialogue that finds common ground have been diminished. I commend President Obama for no longer allowing politics to get in the way of promising work on spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases affecting millions of Americans, and for an approach that restores the promise of ethically-guided research in the best American tradition.”
Obama also won plaudits from an interesting quarter, former first lady Nancy Reagan. "I’m very grateful that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research,” she said in a statement. “These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward. I urge researchers to make use of the opportunities that are available to them, and to do all they can to fulfill the promise that stem cell research offers."
UPDATE: Republicans in Congress, however, objected vociferously to Obama's decision.
"This decision runs counter to President Obama's promise to be a president for all Americans," Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the top Republican in the House, said in a statement. "For a third time in his young presidency, 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.
"I fully support stem cell research, but I draw the line at taxpayer-funded research that requires the destruction of human embryos, and millions of Americans feel similarly," Boehner said.
Representative Chris Smith, co-chairman of the House Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference that scientific advances had already been happening under the Bush administration rules.
"At a time when highly significant, even historic breakthroughs in adult stem cell research have become almost daily occurrences and almost to the point of being mundane, President Obama has chosen to turn back the clock and starting today will force taxpayers to subsidize the unethical over the ethical, the unworkable over what works, and hype and hyperbole over hope," Smith said.
"Human-embryo-destroying stem cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable, it is now demonstrably unnecessary. Assertions that leftover embryos are better off dead so that their stem cells can be derived is dehumanizing and cheapens human life."
Obama's full remarks (transcript from the White House) are below:
Thank you. Please, have a seat. Thank you much. Well, I'm excited too. (Laughter.)
Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. (Applause.) We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. (Applause.) And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.
At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions: to regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair; to spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles; to treat Parkinson's, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them.
But that potential will not reveal itself on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. 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. From life-saving vaccines, to pioneering cancer treatments, to the sequencing of the human genome -- that is the story of scientific progress in America. When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.
In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has 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.
It's a difficult and delicate balance. And many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. And I understand their concerns, and I believe that we must respect their point of view.
But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans -- from across the political spectrum, and from all backgrounds and beliefs -- have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research; that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.
That is a conclusion with which I agree. And that is why I am signing this executive order, and why I hope Congress will act on a bipartisan basis to provide further support for this research. We are joined today by many leaders who have reached across the aisle to champion this cause, and I commend all of them who are here for that work.
Ultimately, I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that. But I can promise that we will seek them -- actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground. Not just by opening up this new front of research today, but by supporting promising research of all kinds, including groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells.
I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.
Now, 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's also about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about letting scientists like those who are 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. (Applause.)
By doing this, we will ensure America's continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. And that is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.
And that's why today I'm also signing a Presidential Memorandum 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 -- (applause) -- to ensure that in this new administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions. That's how we'll harness the power of science to achieve our goals -- to preserve our environment and protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and live longer, healthier lives.
As we restore our commitment to science and expand funding for promising stem cell research, we owe a debt of gratitude to so many tireless advocates, some of whom are with us today, many of whom are not. Today, we honor all those whose names we don't know, who organized and raised awareness and kept on fighting -- even when it was too late for them, or for the people they love. And we honor those we know, who used their influence to help others and bring attention to this cause -- people like Christopher and Dana Reeve, who we wish could be here to see this moment.
One of Christopher's friends recalled that he hung a sign on the wall of the exercise room where he did his grueling regimen of physical therapy. And it read: "For everyone who thought I couldn't do it. For everyone who thought I shouldn't do it. For everyone who said it's impossible. See you at the finish line."
Christopher once told a reporter who was interviewing him: If you came back here 10 -- "If you came back here in 10 years, I expect that I'd walk to the door to greet you."
Now, Christopher did not get that chance. But if we pursue this research, maybe one day -- maybe not in our lifetime, or even in our children's lifetime -- but maybe one day, others like Christopher Reeves might.
There's no finish line in the work of science. The race is always with us -- the urgent work of giving substance to hope and answering those many bedside prayers, of seeking a day when words like "terminal" and "incurable" are potentially retired from our vocabulary.
Today, using every resource at our disposal, with renewed determination to lead the world in the discoveries of this new century, we rededicate ourselves to this work.
Before I sign, I want to just note the people who are on the stage with me. In addition to our outstanding Secretary of Energy, Secretary Chu; we also have Dr. Patricia Bath; we have Dr. H. Robert Horvitz; we have Dr. Janet Rowley; Dr. Harold Varmus, who's going to be the co-chair of my President's Council on Science; we've got Dr. Michael Bishop; and we also have Dr. Peter Agre. So these are an example of the outstanding scientists who we hope will guide us through this process in the years to come.
And with them standing beside me, I'd also like to invite some of my colleagues from Congress who have done just such extraordinary work to share in the limelight, because you guys are still going to have some work to do, and -- but it's because of the leadership of so many of you across partisan lines that we've been able to accomplish so much already.
So thank you very much, everybody. Let's go sign this.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.