Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Science and Society

Gilbert Meilaender, Paul McHugh, Benjamin Carson, Nicholas Eberstadt, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, William Hurlbut, Donald Landry, Peter Lawler, and Diana Schaub

, 03/25/2009

Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

(Science and Society) Permanent link

On March 9, President Obama removed restrictions on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines derived by means that destroy human embryos. Although members of the President’s Council on Bioethics have been divided on this question and some of our colleagues disagree with us, we think it may be useful and clarifying to set the president’s action in three ways into the context of work the council has done over the past seven years.


  • At the outset of his remarks, the president characterized his action as “lift[ing] the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.” That language does not accurately characterize the federal funding policy that has been in place during the entire tenure of this council. The policy announced by President Bush on August 9, 2001, did not ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research; rather, for the first time, it provided and endorsed such funding (as long as the stem cell lines had been derived prior to that date).

    The aim of this policy was not to shackle scientific research but to find a way to reconcile the need for research with the moral concerns people have. That is precisely how the council formulated the question in Monitoring Stem Cell Research: “How can embryonic stem cell research, conducted in accordance with basic research ethics, be maximally aided within the bounds of the principle that nascent human life should not be destroyed for research?”

    Attention to the ethical principles that ought to guide and limit scientific research has been constant since the end of World War II. Different kinds of research have been limited, and sometimes prohibited, not in order to suppress science but in order to free it as a genuinely human and moral activity. Whether one agrees or not with the policy that had been in place for more than seven years, clarity and honesty require that we acknowledge its intent: to seek a way for science to proceed without violating the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens.


  • In many respects, that policy of seeking a way forward that would not violate widespread moral convictions had in fact succeeded--or, at least, seemed well on the way to achieving its aim. In 2005 this council published a white paper titled Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells. At its outset, we stated our commitment to two goals: “advancing biomedical science and upholding ethical norms.” We examined briefly four methods that had been proposed for procuring embryonic-like stem cells without destroying human embryos. We were not at that point in a position to endorse without hesitation any of them, but we concluded that we were “pleased to endorse these proposals as worthy of further public discussion, and . . . pleased to encourage their scientific exploration.”

    Since the publication of that white paper, researchers have made progress on all of these methods – most strikingly in reprogramming somatic cells in order to restore them to a pluripotent condition. In the last two years, several different groups of scientists have succeeded in producing what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. Because producing them does not require the destruction of embryos, they do not raise what many regard as a grave moral difficulty. Because producing them does not require human ova, and because they are patient-specific stem cells that are less likely to be rejected by their recipients, they also have distinct scientific advantages. Indeed, on the day following President Obama’s announcement, an analysis in the New York Times noted that the embryonic stem cell research the president had touted “has been somewhat eclipsed by new advances.”

    It is also worth noting here the position adopted by our predecessor body, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which did important work during the Clinton administration. NBAC approved stem cell research using (and, of course, destroying) embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization treatments. At the same time, however, NBAC stated that such embryo-destructive research is justifiable “only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.” Such alternatives are now available, and research on them is advancing.

    With respect to the progress that had been made in reconciling the needs of research and the moral concerns of many Americans, we can only judge, therefore, that the president’s action has taken a step backward, and we regret that.


  • In his remarks on March 9, President Obama promised to “ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” While this may seem comforting, it stands in need of clarification.

    The president’s announced policy would permit federal funding of research not only on stem cell lines derived from “spare” IVF embryos but also on lines derived from created and/or cloned embryos. In the latter two cases, we would be producing embryos simply in order to use them for our purposes.

    What researchers most desire, in fact, are not spare IVF embryos but cloned embryos, produced in order to study disease models. The funding decision announced by the president on March 9 will encourage such cloning. Nor should we be reassured that, at the same time, the president opposed “the use of cloning for human reproduction.” If cloned embryos are produced, they may be implanted and gestated. To prevent that, it will be necessary, as we noted in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, “to prohibit, by law, the implantation of cloned embryos for the purpose of producing children. To do so, however, the government would find itself in the unsavory position of designating a class of embryos that it would be a felony not to destroy.” We cannot believe that this would advance our society’s commitment to equal human dignity.

    In fidelity to the work the council has done over the past seven years, therefore, we think it essential to clarify what is at stake in the newly announced policy.


Personal Statement by Edmund D. Pellegrino

As an individual council member, speaking for myself and not the President’s Council on Bioethics, I support the substance of the objections of some council members to recent relaxation of existing policies regarding human embryonic stem cell research. Ethically, I cannot support any policy permitting deliberate production and/or destruction of a human fetus or embryo for any purpose, scientific or therapeutic.

– Edmund D. Pellegrino




Posted by Greg Kaebnick at 03/25/2009 02:34:02 PM | 

Should it not be noted that this commentary comes from hold over members of the Council appointed by George Bush, a Council whose majority views tended to be theologically based, and far removed from mainstream bioethical thinking?
Posted by: bdcolen@mit.edu ( Email | Visit ) at 3/27/2009 10:24 AM

These authors maintain that President Obama’s claim to lift federal restrictions on funding of human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) “does not accurately characterize the federal funding policy that has been in place during the entire tenure of this council” because the intent of the Bush policy was not to restrict federal funding of hESCR, but rather to enable the research to go forward in a morally acceptable way. Even if that was President Bush’s intent – and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – it is mind-boggling to think that research that uses stem cells derived from embryos killed before a particular date (August 9, 2001) is acceptable, but not research that uses embryos killed after that date. How can the date carry such moral weight? If one believes that embryos are people, who must not be killed in research, then what possible significance can the date on which they were killed have? Bush did not offer a moral principle for ethically acceptable research but rather a compromise that did not satisfy either the opponents or proponents of the research.

As for induced pluripotent cells (iPCs) replacing embryonic stem cells, we still do not know if these cells will work or be safe. From a scientific perspective, research on both hESCs and iPCs should continue until we know the answers to these questions. If it turns out that iPCs are just as effective and safe as hESCs, then certainly to insist on destroying embryos would show insufficient respect for the religious and moral convictions of those who view embryos as having moral standing. However, what is proposed by the former members of the President’s Council is that we ought to stop funding hESCR now, out of respect for the religious and moral convictions of some. I cannot see why this should be so. If hESCR lives up to its therapeutic potential, and iPCs are not an adequate substitute, we may lose the opportunity for therapies and cures that would benefit millions of people. Why should respect for the religious and moral convictions of others trump that?

The council members end by bringing up the bogeyman of reproductive cloning: “If cloned embryos are produced, they may be implanted and gestated.” First, the ability to clone a human embryo does not necessarily mean the ability to create a cloned child. But even if it were possible to implant a cloned human embryo and bring it to birth, it is difficult to imagine a plausible scenario in which this would be done. In the future, it might be possible to create tissue or even organs from stem cells. The point of cloning embryos, as opposed to using embryos created by IVF, is that the embryo could be cloned from a somatic cell of a patient, so that the tissue derived from the stem cells would have the patient’s own DNA, thus theoretically avoiding problems of rejection. The writers worry that an embryo cloned for this purpose could be implanted and gestated. But why would anyone want to do that? If the intention is simply reproduction, IVF embryos are a lot easier to come by. And if the intention is to get an embryo of a particular genome for reproductive purposes, why would an embryo cloned from a sick patient be desirable? Concerns about cloning for reproductive purposes need not preclude cloning for research or eventual therapeutic purposes.

– Bonnie Steinbock, SUNY/Albany
Posted by: gkaebnick ( Email ) at 4/1/2009 8:22 AM

Dr. Steinbock,

While I grant that it was a Solomon's choice facing then-President Bush in 2001, and that when the embryos were killed cannot easily (if at all) carry the moral weight to justify their use in ESCR, it was a compromise, which denotes some level of give and take, regardless what issue is being discussed. You are absolutely correct; the decision was problematic for all sides of the debate.

But in your characterization, you misstate the reason for objections to ESCR. It is not because destroying embryos would 'show insufficient respect for the religious and moral convictions of those who view embryos as having moral standing.' The objection is that it would show insufficient respect to the embryos, because of their moral standing. By your lights, it is a matter of tolerance and politics; by those opposed to ESCR, it is a matter of ethics and morality.

As for the 'bogeyman of reproductive cloning,' I can think of at least one, maybe more reasons why an embryo cloned from a 'sick' person might be desirable. All it would take is a few sick persons who want to be cloned, and some who are willing to help them do it.

Bill Burns
Posted by: wt_burns@swbell.net ( Email ) at 4/1/2009 11:26 PM

The opposing comments focus attention on religious motives that are not supported by the original letter or Dr. Pellegrino's Statement.

As to the concerns about implantation of cloned embryos and reproduction by cloning: I remember when we were told that no one would use IVF embryos for anything *other* than babies for parents desperate to hold their own children. That assurance was replaced with, the concepts of “spare embryos that are going to die anyway.” In the meantime, researchers have been intentionally creating "disease-specific" and other human embryos for no other purpose than in order to destroy them for research.

The Council members do not directly address what I consider the most likely unethical result of regenerative medicine and technology. (And, second to misguided attempts to reproduce oneself or a loved one, the most likely reason that "anyone would want to do that.")

How long before we are back where Huxley began his speculation, with future children enhanced or stunted for the purposes of others?

Beverly Nuckols
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