Washington From tiny embryonic cells to the large-scale physics of global warming, President Barack Obama urged researchers on Monday to follow science and not ideology as he abolished contentious Bush-era restraints on stem-cell research.
“Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama declared as he signed documents changing U.S. science policy and removing what some researchers have said were shackles on their work.
“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,” Obama said.
Researchers said the new president’s message was clear: Science, which once propelled men to the moon, again matters in American life.
Opponents saw it differently: a defeat for morality in the most basic questions of life and death.
“The action by the president today will, in effect, allow scientists to create their own guidelines without proper moral restraints,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.
In a crowded ornate East Room, there were more scientists in the White House than Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science had seen in his 30 years in Washington. “More happy scientists than I’ve seen,” he added.
The most immediate effect will allow federally funded researchers to use hundreds of new embryonic stem cell lines for promising, but still long-range research in hopes of creating better treatments, possibly even cures, for conditions ranging from diabetes to paralysis. Until now, those researchers had to limit themselves to just 21 stem cell lines created before August 2001, when President George W. Bush limited funding because of “fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.”
Science, politics and religion have long intertwined and conflicted with each other. In his actions Monday, especially with the stem cell decision, Obama is emphasizing more the science than the religion, when compared with his predecessor, science policy experts say. But they acknowledged politics is still involved.
Don’t expect stem cell cures or treatments anytime soon. One company this summer will begin the world’s first study of a treatment using human embryonic stem cells, in people who recently suffered spinal cord injuries. Research institutions on Monday were gearing up to ask for more freely flowing federal money, and the National Institutes of Health was creating guidelines on how to hand it out and include ethical constraints. It will be months before the stem cell money flows; the average NIH stem cell grant is $1.5 million spread out over four years.
In Congress, Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Mike Castle, R-Del., said they would seek a quick vote on legislation to codify Obama’s order in federal law, after failing twice in the past to overturn Bush’s restrictions. DeGette said she doesn’t want stem cell research to become “a pingpong ball going back and forth between administrations.”
A primer on stem cells
What are embryonic stem cells?
Cells are the basic biological building blocks of all life. Embryonic stem cells are a type of cell that have the potential to become any of the body’s specialized cells and tissues. Embryonic stem cells can be grown into specialized cells needed for research into conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes and may ultimately be used in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, Type 1 diabetes and other maladies.
Are there adult stem cells?
Yes. Stem cells harvested from adults, children and even babies are called adult stem cells and are part of the body’s repair mechanism. These types of stem cells are useful for some kinds of therapies, but they are not as versatile as embryonic stem cells. Research continues on both kinds.
Where do embryonic stem cells come from?
They are harvested from days-old embryos in a process that destroys the embryo itself. The embryos used by scientists are typically donated by couples who no longer need them for fertility treatments.
Why is this so political?
Since the stem cells come from embryos, some people who believe life begins at conception view the research as tantamount to murder. Those favoring such research argue that embryos are not babies, and that since the unused embryos would otherwise be discarded, it is imperative to use them to understand and potentially cure diseases.
Is embryonic stem cell research legal?
In most states, yes. A few states don’t permit scientists to work with the cells. But there have never been any federal laws against the research. The only limitations were about federal funding.