WASHINGTON — He promised, and it looks likely he will stick to his promise.
Barack Obama is likely to issue an executive order permitting federal funds taken from Americans’ income taxes to be used for embryonic stem-cell research once he takes office, aides hinted recently.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” John Podesta, Obama transition team cochairman, indicated that a number of standing executive orders issued by President Bush would be up for review by President Obama.
“I think that we’re looking at — again, in virtually every agency — to see where we can move forward, whether that’s on energy transformation, on improving health care, on stem-cell research,” Podesta said.
If cures are found using embryonic stem-cell research, it will raise important moral questions for Christians, such as whether or not to accept a therapy derived from a process in which a nascent human life was destroyed.
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, noted that the moral question would be whether or not using the therapy would encourage the further killing of embryos.
“I think, looking how embryonic research has been proceeding, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suppose that by my participating in this treatment that is now available using the remains of an embryo that was killed specifically for the purpose of getting those remains there might be increased pressure to kill other embryonic humans,” he said. “It would therefore involve one in a form of cooperation that would be quite serious and therefore be avoided by Catholics.”
President Bush signed an executive order Aug. 9, 2001, that barred the National Institutes of Health from funding research that entailed killing human embryos. During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to overturn the order in response to questions posed by the group Science Debate 2008, a grassroots initiative spearheaded by scientists and citizens.
“As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem-cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001, through executive order, and I will ensure that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight,” Obama’s statement read.
Embryology teaches that a human embryo ? from inception to eight weeks ? is an individual boy or girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal life-expectancy. The Church teaches that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person ? among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism, No. 2270).
Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the killing of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Non-embryonic stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the killing of human life. It has proven successful in treating more than 70 different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Two recent Obama appointments bode poorly for moral stem-cell research. Lifenews.com reported Nov. 18 that Obama named University of Pennsylvania medical ethics professor Jonathan Moreno to manage transition activities related to bioethical issues. Moreno strongly supports embryonic stem-cell research. Obama also tapped University of Wisconsin law professor and bioethicist R. Alta Charo, also an advocate of embryonic stem-cell research, to his transition team.
Obama’s strong support for embryonic stem-cell research is consistent with his record, as he was a cosponsor for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The controversial bill directed taxpayer dollars to fund embryonic stem-cell research.
The bill was supported by a majority of Democrats and enough Republicans to pass the bill twice in Congress. President Bush vetoed it each time, however, serving as a road block regarding the killing of human embryos for stem-cell research.
“I think across the board, on stem-cell research, on a number of areas,” Podesta added during the interview, “you see the Bush administration, even today, moving aggressively to do things that I think are probably not in the interest of the country.”
During his term, Bush reiterated the importance of alternative forms of stem-cell research, but angered some scientists and activists by making a key moral distinction: Stem-cell lines produced in ways that create, destroy or harm human embryos were not eligible for federal funding.
“President Bush declared an executive order banning funding for certain kinds of stem-cell research on ideological and religious grounds, not on the basis of the promise of such research for advancing medical knowledge and therapies,” said Dr. Irving Weissman, president-elect of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, in a statement. “This was a dangerous precedent of politicization of biomedical research, perhaps the first ideological ban of a type of research in America.”
The nonprofit organization supports all forms of stem-cell research.
‘Give Bush Credit’
David Christenson, senior director of congressional affairs for the Family Research Council, noted that several important breakthroughs have been made in stem-cell research without using human embryos.
“You have to give President Bush some credit for pushing alternative sources,” Christenson noted. “Obviously, some scientists are finding new ways to do this … without even going the embryonic stage.”
In November 2007, important breakthroughs were made in induced pluripotent stem cells, which effectively created stem cells identical to embryonic stem cells, but without creating or killing an embryo.
But the Bush era is over, and the issue remains a popular one among scientists. An executive order from Obama overturning Bush’s policy would open the door to new funding for stem-cell research that exploits human embryos.
With Democratic majorities in Congress, additional federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is likely to be passed.
“We’re expecting not only an executive order from Obama on this issue, but we’re expecting Congress to pass a bill, as well; they’re going to use this for as much political gain as they can get,” Christenson added.
Proponents of embryonic stem-cell research, however, anticipate the Obama administration as a period of key research and breakthroughs.
“President-elect Obama can rejuvenate science and research in the U.S.,” said Fiona Watt, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “Millions of patients will be looking to him and to the promise of stem-cell research.”
Some members of Congress are still opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, but their ability to stop any future legislation is unlikely.
Prominent Republicans like John McCain, for instance, see no problem using taxpayer money to pay scientists to do experiments that kill embryos.
“I think it would be very disappointing for those of us who are pro-life and understand the issue in both a moral and a practical sense,” said Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, R.-Mich., about the issue.
McCotter stands against embryonic stem-cell research, although voters in his home state of Michigan just approved a ballot initiative allowing researchers in the state to derive new embryonic stem-cell lines from fertility clinic embryos.
He noted that the narrowly passed proposal was “hotly contested” and that proponents take an “all-or-nothing” approach.
“When dealing with the embryonic stem-cell issue, proponents omit the word ‘embryonic,’ and they simply refer to stem cells, which is misleading,” he said, adding that opponents of embryonic stem cells are often painted as opponents of all stem-cell research.
Although political and religious leaders have opposed embryonic stem-cell research, proponents for the controversial research insist that they are standing in the way of important cures for debilitating diseases.
“It makes it sound like people don’t want to help those who are suffering,” McCotter added. “The reality is we stand for both moral and practical reasons; we believe that adult and umbilical cord stem-cell research is actually showing the progress to give people hope.”
Catholic and religious ethicists say circumstances do not change the rights of a human embryo.
“Destroying a human embryo is an intrinsic evil. There is no gray area here; it is as black and white as it comes,” said Father Alfred Cioffi, an ethicist from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
The organization is one of many that are warning about the ethical problems with embryonic stem-cell research and are patiently reminding people that, currently, embryonic stem cells have not demonstrated cures and are unlikely to develop into promised results in the near future.
“Embryonic stem cells have produced zero results in the best case scenario and actually cause tumors in the worst case scenario,” Father Cioffi said, contrasting failed treatments with proven cures from adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Now with new legislation on the horizon, scientists are poised to employ questionable ethical practices, exploiting human embryos for research.
“If you give something to scientists, sooner or later they will find a way to make it work,” Father Cioffi warned. “This translates into decades of destroyed embryos and billions of dollars for research. … To use public money for this kind of research is highly controversial and extremely offensive to millions of taxpaying Americans.”
Charlie Spiering is based
in Washington, D.C.