Americans are understandably divided over President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research. But he took the course that promises the greater medical benefit.
In reversing a funding ban imposed by President Bush, Obama yesterday also took a welcome step toward restoring the rightful place of scientific research in guiding public policy.
Obama's presidential order is expected to boost research that advocates believe could develop cures for afflictions from Parkinson's disease to paralysis to heart disease. He acknowledged the difficult moral questions that are raised but added, "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering."
Embryonic stem cells can morph into any cell of the body. In August 2001, Bush banned federal funding for research into stem lines created after that date. His order restricted taxpayer dollars to only the 21 stem-cell lines or "colonies" that had been produced up to that time.
Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research say it is immoral because the days-old embryos are destroyed to create the stem-cell lines. But as noted by University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, nearly all of the approximately 600,000 human embryos now in storage in the United States would be destroyed eventually, regardless. Only 70 embryo adoptions took place nationally last year.
Although embryos are a very early form of human life, not all embryos develop to infancy. It would be a lost opportunity for the rest of humankind not to use embryos that would otherwise be destroyed to save lives.
Obama's order doesn't address a separate legislative ban, which doesn't allow federal money to be spent for the development of new stem-cell lines. But that order does permit taxpayer dollars to be spent for research on lines that were created without federal funding.
"It opens up the ability to work on a broader range of lines," said Martin Grumet, director of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center. "It opens up new opportunities."
In 2005, New Jersey became the first state to finance research using embryonic stem cells, including lines prohibited from use in research receiving federal funding. But the state eliminated nearly all funding for research this year to balance its budget. Grumet said his team is applying for grants from the economic-stimulus legislation.
New stem-cell lines created since the Bush ban are said by scientists to be healthier and to have a better potential for treating diseases.
Another objection to embryonic research is that progress has been made using adult stem cells, which do not require the destruction of embryos. While that field holds promise, many scientists agree that research should occur using both strategies. To close one avenue is to shut off a field of vast potential without knowing the possible results.