The audacity of stem cell hype
Barack Obama overturns Bush order, permits funding of ESCR
On March 10, U.S. President Barack Obama signed two executive orders in support of embryonic stem cell research, reversing course on two significant, life-affirming restrictions on the research that had been put in place during the Bush administration. The president and supporters of the new policies predict that embryonic stem cell research will bring about cures and treatments for diseases and illnesses as diverse as diabetes and Parkinson’s, and perhaps even repair spinal cord injuries. That there is little indication such enthusiasm is warranted has been ignored.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent – that is, the cells can turn into any other cell in the human body and, theoretically at least, be coaxed into transforming into tissue and organs necessary for regenerative medicine. Pro-life opposition to such research is based on the fact that the embryonic human being is killed in the process of harvesting the stem cells; thus, the process is tantamount to murder. But opposition need not rely on moral arguments, considering that somatic (adult) stem cells harvested from ethical sources including bone marrow, skin cells and umbilical cord blood, have provided actual clinical trial success stories.
In 2001, then-president George W. Bush signed an executive order limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to existing lines of embryonic stem cells. He was reaching for a political compromise that made researchers and patient advocacy groups happy on the one hand by providing taxpayer funding of then-promising research and pro-life and religious groups on the other satisfied that the sanctity of human life would be protected in such research by limiting scientific exploration on the existing stem lines and prohibiting funding for newly harvested stem cells. At the time, pro-ESCR forces applauded Bush’s decision.
Over time, however, the media and Bush’s political opponents characterized the policy as a ban on ESCR. That’s not true. Private companies faced no legal restrictions on creating or harvesting embryonic stem cells for research and numerous states, including California, Michigan and New Jersey, have provided state taxpayer funding of ESCR.
Notably, private capital has supported somatic stem cell research. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that of 150 private biotech companies engaged in stem cell research, only one, Geron Inc., has a clinical stage embryonic stem cell product.
The lack of private sector interest in embryonic stem cells is an indication that they are considered inferior and are nowhere near delivering the promised treatments their enthusiastic boosters promise. That is why ESC researchers so desperately want federal funding for their work.
While many supporters of the new funding policy are heralding the potential of ESCR, the president warned that treatments may prove elusive, saying, “I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek.” For Obama, lifting the restrictions on funding was about getting politics out of science policy. Announcing the executive order, Obama chastised his predecessor for putting political decisions – appeasing his religious base and his own pro-life principles – ahead of promoting science. Indeed, Obama went so far as to couch his new policy in morality, while condemning the moral considerations of others. “In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research,” he said, “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.” Harold Varmus, co-chair of Obama’s science advisory board, said the new guidelines on ESCR to be developed by the White House Office of Science and Technology would restore “scientific integrity” to government decision-making.
Pro-life and religious leaders condemned the new policy.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said the funding is as wrong as it is unnecessary: “Embryonic stem cell research is a destructive and outdated method that has become a holy grail to political and scientific activists who seek no moral restraints on their work.”
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said March 10 was a “sad day,” because Washington was now going to “fund research that exploits living members of the human species as raw material for research.”
Pointing to the clinical trial success of somatic stem cells and the recent discovery of a technique in which scientists can induce pluripotent stem cells from ethically derived stem cells, Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, called ESCR “the research of the past.” She noted that tax dollars are better spent on “research that protects life and helps patients now.”
Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives on the day Obama made his announcement, Rep. Chris Smith (R, NJ) condemned the “dehumanizing of nascent human life,” noting that alternatives “work on both ethics grounds and efficacy grounds.”
Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said it was wrong to treat “vulnerable human beings as mere products to be harvested.” He warned that it will encourage further “destruction of innocent human life.”
Indeed, the ink on the executive order wasn’t even dry when pro-ESCR forces were calling for liberalization of legal limits on the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. A 1996 law, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, prohibits federal funds from being used to create embryos that will be destroyed for research purposes. Some politicians and scientists are clamouring for a repeal of the Dickey-Wicker law to increase the availability of embryos as a source of stem cells. The National Right to Life Committee warned of “human embryo farms” to be used for the mass harvest of stem cells. The NRLC’s Douglas Johnson said researchers “will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos” from fertility clinics.
Earlier this year, Congress voted a 33 per cent increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health, from $29 billion to $39.5 billion. Obama’s announcement will allow the NIH to use some of that $10.5 billion increase to fund ESCR. The Wall Street Journal reported that one (unnamed) senator has floated the idea of a government bailout for the biotechnology sector, which could open the floodgates to embryonic stem cell research.
On the same day as the funding announcement, Obama reversed a 2007 Bush executive order requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to support ethical and more promising adult stem cell research. The move was defended as necessary to permit taxpayer funding of ESCR, but critics noted that Obama’s signing ceremony for this reversal was held in private and was not accompanied by a press conference or alluded to during his earlier press conference on funding.