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The New Stem Cell Policy and Public Opinion

In a statement that appeared on Bioethics Forum a couple of days ago, ten members of the President’s Council on Bioethics state that federal funding for research using newly derived embryonic stem cell lines will violate “the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens.” The objection needs to be put in perspective. Yes, many will object. But not all, and based on opinion polls and surveys, including some collected here for Fukuyama and Furger’s report Beyond Bioethics, probably not most.

When President Obama made his much anticipated announcement on March 7, he actually did very little. All he did was rescind the limitations contained in President Bush’s famous 2001 statement. President Bush limited federally funded embryonic stem cell research to cells extracted from human embryos before 9 p.m. EDT on August 9, 2001 (the moment he made his statement), and even then only from embryos that were “created for reproductive purposes” and were no longer needed. That is: there would be no federal money for research on newly extracted cells or on any cells taken from cloned embryos or embryos created for research purposes. President Obama removed these limitations, but he did not leave the door wide open.

New guidelines are coming from the National Institutes of Health, and these guidelines will set the exact terms of the new federal policy. Only then will we know whether government money may be used only for research on cells taken from so-called “spare” embryos, or also for research on cells taken from embryos created in the lab specifically for research purposes, including by cloning. I think that the NIH is likely to follow President Clinton’s policy and limit federal funding to research on cells taken from spare embryos.

Many other nations, including Canada, restrict research to cells taken from spare embryos, banning cloning for research and reproduction along the way. The Canadians don’t distinguish between research done using government money and money from other sources. Nor do most other nations. (Speaking as a bit of an outsider myself – I’m a New Zealander, but I’ve been in the U.S. for years – drawing a distinction between federal money and nonfederal money in regulating this research does seem a tad odd.)

If the NIH chooses the spare-embryos-only path, federal policy will actually be in line with what polls and surveys tell us is the moral conviction of the majority of Americans on this issue. If they allow research on cloned embryos or embryos created through old-fashioned in vitro fertilization in a research lab (rather than in a fertility clinic), they will likely go further than most Americans find comfortable. Such a policy would require greater justification and would be open to the charge that it was out of step with the country (even if it met the needs of more scientists). A policy allowing research on cells taken from cloned embryos would also arouse fears that the federal government was, if only indirectly, supporting research that could lead to the birth of a human clone (another major concern of the members of the President’s Council). For those in the battle against human reproductive cloning, however, federal stem cell policy should be a minor front. To prevent the birth of a human clone, they need to fight for a new criminal law (as the statement explains), which is another thing altogether.

There is no policy that will satisfy the moral convictions of all Americans. Bush’s policy was not restrictive enough for some, and if the NIH guidelines allow federally funded research only on cells from spare embryos, then federal policy will probably still be too restrictive for others. So while the members of the President’s Council are right that the new policy will very likely violate the convictions of many, it will likely accord with the convictions of most.

We usually try not to tramp all over what others hold sacred unless we have very good reasons. The challenge in this case is that so many believe there are good reasons—that research on embryonic stem cells is promising and important, despite the development of pluripotent stem cells, and that there is a strong moral case in favor of doing it (within limits). And this president clearly agrees.

This essay was revised on April 2, 2009.

Josephine Johnston is a research scholar at The Hastings Center.

Published on: March 27, 2009
Published in: Emerging Biotechnology, Stem Cells

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