Obama overturns Bush policy on stem cells

President Obama signs the executive order on stem cell policy Monday at the White House.
President Obama signed an executive order Monday repealing a Bush-era policy that limited federal tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

Obama’s move overturns an order signed by President Bush in 2001 that barred the National Institutes of Health from funding research on embryonic stem cells beyond using 60 cell lines that existed at that time. Obama also signed a presidential memorandum establishing greater independence for federal science policies and programs. Critics of the Bush administration argued the former president allowed political factors improperly to influence funding decisions for science initiatives as well as to skew official government findings on issues such as global warming. Obama’s action is part of a broader effort to separate science and politics and “restore scientific integrity in governmental decision-making,” White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Sunday. In a conference call with reporters, Barnes said funding research is also part of the administration’s plan to boost the plunging U.S. economy. “Advances with regard to science and technology help advance our overall national goals around economic growth and job creation,” she said, adding, “I think anytime you make an effort to try and separate these pieces of the puzzle, you’re missing the entire picture.”

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But one prominent GOP critic on Sunday accused the administration of using the issue as a distraction from the country’s economic slump. “Why are we going and distracting ourselves from the economy This is job No. 1. Let’s focus on what needs to be done,” Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, told CNN’s “State of the Union.” Cantor, the Republican whip in the House of Representatives, has been among the leaders of GOP opposition to Obama’s economic policies. Because stem cells have the potential to turn into any organ or tissue cell in the body, research advocates say they could yield cures to debilitating conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal injuries. But because work on embryonic stem cells involves the destruction of human embryos, many conservatives supported the limits Bush imposed by executive order in 2001. Bush twice vetoed legislation — in July 2006 and June 2007 — that would have expanded federally funded embryonic stem cell research. At the time, Bush argued that scientific advances allowed researchers to conduct groundbreaking research without destroying human embryos. Bush’s actions led to Democratic criticism that he had put politics over science. Dr. Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and co-chairman of Obama’s science advisory council, said Sunday that Obama will “endorse the notion that public policy must be guided by sound, scientific advice.” Obama’s order will direct the National Institutes of Health to develop revised guidelines on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research within 120 days, said Varmus, who joined Barnes in the conference call with reporters. “The president is, in effect, allowing federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research to the extent that it’s permitted by law — that is, work with stem cells themselves, not the derivation of stem cells,” he said. Supporters of the ban said researchers could still obtain private funding or explore alternatives such as adult stem cells. Opponents said the research could be carried out using embryos left over in fertility clinics, which otherwise would be discarded.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, has said the Bush policy imposed ethical limits on science. “My basic tenet here is I don’t think we should create life to enhance life and to do research and so forth,” Shelby said. “I know that people argue there are other ways. I think we should continue our biomedical research everywhere we can, but we should have some ethics about it.”