Marian Benjamin

Researchers are thrilled about the recently signed executive order that reverses former President Bush’s ban on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. The executive order now means that scientists who receive public funding while pursuing stem cell research with private money will no longer have to totally segregate the two “universes.” Previously, laboratory personnel had to log each minute spent on embryonic cell research and keep all equipment separate. According to a recent Time article,1 this might even mean separate facilities.

It is not only researchers who are happy about this order: According to a Gallup poll,2 52% of Americans support the decision

Maybe, but there are a significant number of people and groups who are strongly against such research. The reasons vary, but among them are objections that it is immoral to intentionally destroy nascent human life. Catholic League President Bill Donohue writes, “Obama has stepped on a slope so slippery that many of his supporters may … regret he did so.”3

Republicans weigh in also: On his Congressional Web site, Rep John Boehner (R-Ohio) says, “The federal government should support stem cell research, but it should support the type of stem cell research that is ethical… Taxpayers don’t need to be asked to subsidize the destruction of human embryos, because the greatest potential for stem cell research lies in procedures that don’t require embryos to be destroyed.”4

His colleague in the Senate, Sen Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), concurs, calling the president’s reversal of the former president’s 2001 ban a “troubling shift.” Adding, “With this announcement, the government is for the first time, incentivizing the creation and destruction of human embryos at the expense of the US taxpayer.”5

Actually, the executive order leaves intact the Dickey-Wicker amendment,6 which states that it is currently illegal to use federal funds for any experiment that creates or destroys a human embryo. Creating new embryos through cloning falls under that ban, as does destroying an embryo to create stem cells.

Even supporters urge strong regulation and oversight. Mary Danovsky, PhD, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit public affairs organization, says, “Ending the restriction on federal funding for stem cell research is long overdue, and so is effective and accountable oversight of it. The rules should be enforceable rather than voluntary guidelines and should apply to all stem cell research, whether it’s publicly or privately funded.”7 Currently, there are no federal regulations for stem cell research beyond those that apply to other biomedical research, but Congressional bills subsequent to President Obama’s new policy are likely to request the National Institutes of Health write regulations for federally funded stem cell research, including a ban on reproductive cloning as a source of embryos.

Proponents of the embryonic stem cell research believe the cells could one day be used to treat debilitating diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, and to reverse spinal cord injuries. Opponents say that such research isn’t necessary because of progress with nonembryonic stem cell research. In any case, such cures are far in the future and any predictions are premature. I’m still weighing the pros and cons of embryonic stem cell research in my own mind; how about you? You can learn more about human embryonic stem cell research by visiting the Center for Genetics and Society frequently asked questions and fact sheet (geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=4461).

Marian Benjamin
[email protected]

References

  1. Park A. Researchers cheer Obama’s vote for stem-cell science. Available at: www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599.1883861,00.html. Accessed March 9, 2009.
  2. Majority of Americans likely support cell decision. Available at: www.gallup.com/poll/116485/Majority-Amendment-Likely-Support.html. Accessed March 10, 2009.
  3. Catholic League: Obama to OK killing embryos. Available at: www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=32848. Accessed March 10, 2009.
  4. An ethical approach to stem cell research. Available at: johnboehner.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=72164. Accessed March 10, 2009.
  5. Stem cell announcement: “troubling shift.” Available at: mcconnell.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=309264&start=1. Accessed March 10, 2009.
  6. The politics of stem cells. Available at: [removed]www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/dispatches/050413.htm[/removed]. Accessed March 11, 2009.
  7. Beyond stem cells: public-interest group urges strong regulation and oversight of reproductive and genetic biotechnologies. Available at: www.geneticsandsociety.org/article.php?id=4570. Accessed March 11, 2009.

CORRECTION

Three ventilators in the March Technology Guide were mistakenly credited with offering Adaptive Support Ventilation (ASV). This is a proprietary technology of Hamilton Medical, which is the only ventilator company to offer this mode.

The corrections have been made to the online version of March RT.   —MB, editor