WASHINGTON - In one of the most significant reversals yet of the previous administration's policies, President Barack Obama signed an executive order yesterday to permit federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.
The president acknowledged the controversy surrounding the scientific research that involves the destruction of human embryos and is opposed by many who also oppose abortion.
But Obama said the potential benefits to be gained - cures and treatments that could reduce human suffering - outweighed such concerns.
"The majority of Americans - from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs - have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research," Obama said at a White House event in the East Room attended by scientific researchers whose work stood to benefit from the new executive order. "The potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided."
When he announced early in his speech that he was reversing the ban put in place by former President George W. Bush, the audience erupted in a loud cheer and sustained applause.
Among the dangers, Obama said, was the potential for the cloning of humans. But he said his administration would put strict rules in place to prevent such cloning. "We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction," Obama said. "It is dangerous, profoundly wrong and has no place in our society or any society."
In August 2001, Bush banned federal funding on embryonic stem cell research except for studies on certain cell lines produced before the ban.
Embryonic stem cells have the benefit of being extremely versatile because scientists can program them to become many different types of cells, including nerve or heart cells. Scientists believe they can be used to uncover cures for ailments including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and severe spinal cord injuries.
Many scientists said Bush's prohibition severely constrained scientific research.
Meanwhile, many conservatives who supported Bush's action held out the promise that adult stem cells produced from human skin and other tissue could be as useful as the embryo-derived cells.
Obama also used the opportunity of the executive-order signing to announce a larger effort meant to reverse the Bush administration's tendency to let political ideology trump science.
Critics accused the Bush administration for allowing its policies on certain types of research to be shaped by the prevailing religious and conservative views. They also saw the administration's positions on climate change be dictated by its close ties to the energy and other industries.
The president said he was ordering the head of his Office of Science and Technology policy to create a strategy to make sure that science, not ideology, drove his policies.
Obama's stem cell decision, which fulfills a campaign promise, continued to come under fire from many conservatives.
"This decision runs counter to President Obama's promise to be a president for all Americans," House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. "For a third time in his young presidency, the president has rolled back important protections for innocent life, further dividing our nation at a time when we need greater unity to tackle the challenges before us." Q&A: WHAT IT MEANS President Barack Obama yesterday lifted restrictions put in place by President George W. Bush on the federal funding of medical research involving embryonic stem cells. Here is what the action means:
What did Bush do?
Bush did not want federal funds used in a way that would encourage the destruction of additional embryos. In August 2001, he announced that federal funds would become available for embryonic stem cell research as long as the cell lines were already in existence. Scientists who wanted to work with newer stem cell lines had to find state or private funding.
What did Obama do?
Obama signed an executive order that eliminates the August 2001 restriction on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.
What is the net effect?
Researchers will be able to obtain federal funding to use perhaps hundreds of human embryonic stem cell lines that have been created since August 2001, along with cell lines that will be created in the future.