During the campaign, President Obama promised to lift President Bush’s tight restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research—a policy limiting research to using lines in existence as of August 9, 2001, the date the policy was announced.
It was an easy applause line—after all, more than 70% of Americans support ESC research, which has potential for treating diseases ranging from spinal cord injury to juvenile diabetes.
It seems almost certain that President Obama will enact an executive order repealing Bush’s ban. Then, the hope is that legislation will pass to back it up so that the pro-ESC research policy stays in place regardless of who's president.
So then why hasn’t the President voided the Bush policy? That’s the question on the minds of researchers, patient-group leaders, and policymakers. “We are getting a little concerned that the commitment, which was so clear and crisp and clean to rescind the policy, hasn’t been acted on yet,” says Amy Comstock Rick, CEO of the Parkinson’s Action Network and president of the Coalition to Advance Medical Research (CAMR).
“It’s not that anybody thinks the administration isn’t committed to changing the federal policy, but they’re wondering, why is there a holdup? What’s going on?” adds Michael Werner, CEO of the Werner Group, a health-policy consulting firm in Washington, and a CAMR board member.
Compounding the confusion were comments on Sunday by Obama political adviser David Axelrod that the president was “considering” the policy change and planned to act “soon, I think.” The withdrawal of Obama’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Daschle, also may be a complicating factor, as is congressional interest in enacting a policy legislatively.
In terms of the executive order, the President is probably also considering how specific to make it—i.e., whether to specify new guidelines for the research or to call on the NIH to develop guidelines or to simply vacate the existing Bush policy. In 2000, the NIH developed a set of detailed guidelines for the research. Those guidelines, however, were put on hold while President Bush considered the issue and then were ultimately dropped under the August 2001 policy.
Research supporters say it’s time to leave the details to the NIH. “We need to get politics out of science,” says Rick. “We don’t think the parameters for research should emanate from the White House. The NIH has the sophistication and expertise to establish appropriate guidelines.”
While presidential action is the top priority, research advocates also support codification of the new policy through legislation. The issue “shouldn’t be bounced around every time there’s a new president,” says Rick.
The legislative process, however, often likened to sausage-making, creates its own political risks. “It adds variables,” says Werner, noting that pro-ESC research legislation could attract amendments to, say, prohibit therapeutic cloning.
BIO President and CEO, Jim Greenwood, a former member of Congress, agrees that it will be a virtual certainty that cloning opponents will seek to add an anticloning measure to ESC research legislation. And they could succeed, since “the cloning issue is still very misunderstood by most members of Congress and is highly politically charged.” As a congressman, Greenwood several times sponsored legislation that would have prohibited reproductive human cloning while allowing therapeutic applications.
Earlier this month, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.) introduced the Stem Cell Research Improvement Act (HR 872), which seeks to rescind the Bush policy and allow donation of IVF embryos for research. A companion bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (HR 873), sets ethical guidelines and mandates an annual report on federal ESC research.
The legislation, in some form, will likely win passage, since “Congress wants to go officially on record” on this popular issue, says Greenwood. Similar bills have passed before but were vetoed by Bush.
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