Obama reverses Bush stem cell restrictions

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The Independent US

President Barack Obama signed an order today that allows federal taxpayer dollars to fund expanded embryonic stem cell research, reversing one of his predecessor's policies viewed by many as blocking development of potentially life-saving medical treatment.

The executive order undoes former President George Bush's directive that was based on his determination that using embryos to create additional stem cell lines was morally wrong and, therefore, research on those lines should not be funded by the government.

Obama, however, said he was ending what he believed was "a false choice between sound science and moral values."

The order could set in motion a significant push on research to find better treatment for ailments from diabetes to paralysis. Proponents such as former first lady Nancy Reagan and the late actor Christopher Reeve had called for ending restrictions on research spending.

"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. "That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided."

He called on Congress to provide the needed funding even as he asserted the order would never allow human cloning.

"We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction," he said in the White House ceremony where he was joined by scientists and other supports of the research. "It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."

Obama issued a slap at the Bush administration, declaring politics not science had driven its policy. Monday's order, Obama said, "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."

Bush had limited the use of taxpayer money to research using 21 stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001. While the Obama order reverses that, it does not address an earlier legislative ban — that remains in place — precluding any federal money to researchers who develop stem cell lines by destroying embryos.

That legislation, however, does not prevent federal funds going to research on stem cell lines that were produced by researchers who did their work without federal aid. Obama's order, thus, would allow federal funding of research on the hundreds of new lines created — through private funding — since the Bush imposed ban.

Bush and his supporters had said they were defending human life. Days-old embryos — typically from fertility clinics and destined for destruction — are destroyed for the stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases — such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson's disease or maybe even Alzheimer's, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.

In reversing the Bush policy, Obama also issued a memo on scientific research aimed at a policy of deeper scientific involvement in issues ranging from renewable energy to climate change and intended to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making," including the appointment of "scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology."

Said Harold Varmus, chairman of the White House's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology: "This memorandum is not concerned solely — or even specifically — with stem cell research."

On Sunday, Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the White House should focus instead on the economy, not on the long-simmering and divisive debate over stem cells.

"Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs," he said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We don't want that. ... And certainly that is something that we ought to be talking about, but let's take care of business first. People are out of jobs."

Regardless, researchers say newer lines that have been produced without federal money during the period of the Bush ban are healthier and better suited to creating treatment for diseases.

"We've got eight years of science to make up for," said Dr. Curt Civin, whose research allowed scientists to isolate stem cells and who now serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.