Obama vows to put science first as he lifts stem-cell ban

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Monday that he'll allow federal financing of medical research using stem cells from discarded human embryos, the vanguard of a broader effort to end what he calls a Bush-era "war on science."

"This order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America," Obama said in the East Room of the White House.

He said he'd not only open the door to this medical research, but also would unleash all forms of science in areas such as the environment from what he believes were limits imposed by the Bush administration rooted in conservative ideology, politics and religion.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources," Obama said. "It is about letting scientists . . . do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient; especially when it's inconvenient. It 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."

Obama's order lifted all of President George W. Bush's restrictions on research into stem cells, which can replicate indefinitely and differentiate into many cell types, and it allows "scientifically worthy human stem-cell research including human embryonic stem-cell research." He gave the National Institutes of Health 120 days to prepare guidelines on how the research will be financed and conducted.

In addition to signing an executive order allowing financing of stem cell research, Obama signed a memo ordering a "strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making."

The reversal is the latest in a periodic struggle between science and religion or ideology. It's one that dates as far back as Galileo's clashes with the Roman Catholic Church and Darwin's theory of human evolution, and extends through the struggles over abortion during the last several decades.

"There are moments when religions and science have clashed," said David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. "One area where they clash is when science says something that conflicts with religious truths. Evolution is one example. The other is when people feel like science has taken a step too far."

Those tensions were exacerbated over the last several years, a period when candidate Obama joined a chorus of critics complaining that the Bush administration ignored science on issues such as global warming. "We need to end the Bush administration's war on science, where ideology trumps scientific inquiry and politics replaces expert opinion," he said during the campaign.

Among the flash points between science and ideology or religion during the Bush years:

  • Republicans rejected calls to limit emissions widely thought to cause global warming.
  • Cultural conservatives pushed, without success, to teach intelligent design in public schools, an alternative to evolution.
  • Congress intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose parents tried to keep her on life support despite her husband's wishes and evidence that she was severely brain damaged.

Bush in 2001 banned federal financing of most research using the stem cells from embryos, which some scientists think could lead to cures for such diseases as Parkinson's and maladies such as spinal cord injuries. He allowed financing of research using only 21 lines of stem cells already created at the time of his order.

The religious community was divided over the research, with the Catholic Church and some evangelical denominations opposing it as an immoral use of human life, while some mainstream Protestant denominations supported it.

Webster's dictionary says that "the human organism up to the third month after conception is called an embryo, thereafter a fetus." Catholic doctrine defines human life as beginning at conception.

Obama called it a "false choice between sound science and moral values" and said that both could coexist.

"As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering," he said. "I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research, and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."

He said he'd never allow cloning of human embryos for medical research.

Political figures also were divided. Republicans Nancy Reagan and John McCain supported the research. Republicans such as Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Eric Cantor of Virginia opposed it.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a physician, said Monday that research using stem cells from adults offered as much promise as those from embryos and that it was Obama, not his critics, who was being driven by the politics of appealing to his base.

"Successful research does not have to come at the expense of human life," Price said. "Scientific evidence, not political patronage, demonstrates the ability for researchers to solve our moral dilemma without having President Obama force taxpayers to subsidize research that will destroy human embryos."

Said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.: "If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes."

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