Fulfilling a campaign promise, US President Barack Obama reversed his predecessor’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem research on March 9. From now on, American scientists may receive Federal government support for research on stem cells taken from embryos, whether they are clones or IVF spares. Most scientists were jubilant - 10 Nobel laureates flanked the President as he signed an executive order.
"What happened today is huge," says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the American Society for Cell Biology. "We've gone from having a small number of cell lines eligible for federal funding to having at least a few hundred."
In some ways, the President’s decision is less significant than the jubilation suggests. First of all, it leaves in place a major obstacle to cloning embryos, the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment. This bans funding for research that involves the destruction, injury or death of a human embryo. So, to do therapeutic cloning, scientists will still have to obtain funding from state governments or private donors, although they can now use federal funding to work on stem cell lines derived from cloned embryos.
This is why the New York Times complained that the job of dismantling President Bush's respect-for-embryos approach remains unfinished: “Congress should follow Mr Obama’s lead and lift this prohibition so such important work can benefit from an infusion of federal dollars.” But whether Congress will support cloning embryos is anyone’s guess.
Second, human embryonic stem cells are practically obsolete, at least for curing dreaded diseases and injuries like spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease and diabetes. A breakthrough discovery in November 2007 by Shinya Yamanaka showed that pluripotent cells with all of their potential for cures could be created from ordinary skin cells - without the ethical baggage. In fact, they are superior because they are a 100 per cent match genetically. Despite all the controversy surrounding embryonic cells, most people do not realise that no one has yet created a successful stem cell line from a human clone.
Most scientists now believe that cures will come from this new type of stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and that embryonic stem cells will be used mostly for drug discovery, genetic research, and for benchmarking the performance of other types of stem cells.
Obama tactfully alluded to this in his eloquent remarks. “At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown,” he said, “and it should not be overstated ... I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No President can promise that.”
So the main effect of Obama’s decision was to boost the morale of an important constituency, the scientific community. To cement his image as a flagbearer of enlightened thinking, the President also set down guidelines for his Administration which guarantee scientists freedom from political interference. These will, he said:
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 is how we will 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.
Noble words, indeed. But, for the most part, they are only words. Encouraging scientists to destroy human embryos even though the best and brightest stem cell scientists think that this is not needed for cures is not basing public policy on the soundest science. Gushing over the factitious potential of embryonic stem cells for cures is not being open and honest with the American people.
The President had harsh words for his predecessor. He had made “a false choice between sound science and moral values” by restricting embryo research in order to safeguard the sanctity of human life at all stages of development. But as it turns out, Bush's policy, however imperfect, was sound. Destroying embryos was not the road to cures. A perfectly ethical method of obtaining stem cells was discovered by a Japanese researcher who shrank from destroying embryos which could have become his own children. In the end ethical science is always good science.
The real story is that Obama's stem cell policy was based almost entirely on the rank political calculation that he cannot afford to alienate the powerful pro-abortion groups and patient advocacy groups who supported him in his campaign. Following the path of least resistance was a no-brainer.
As the first major bioethics decision of his presidency, this announcement has set a bad precedent. In the not-so-distant future, Obama may have to decide whether to support cloning embryos, setting up markets for human organs, and physician-assisted suicide. Enormous pressures will be brought to bear on him by their partisans. When it is his turn to choose between “sound science and moral values”, will he choose the latter, no matter what the cost?