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Obama Lifts Restrictions on Funding Human Stem Cell Research

March 9, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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Betty Ann Bowser reports on President Barack Obama's executive order to lift restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama cleared the way today for new government spending on scientific research using embryonic stem cells. In doing so, he overturned an 8-year-old ban on government financing for the research first imposed by President Bush.

Betty Ann Bowser of our Health Unit has the lead story report. The unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: President Obama signed his executive order before a packed East Room audience. The move potentially clears the way for scientists to apply for federal money to do research on any embryonic stem cell lines.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research.

And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.

Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research, from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit, and from a government willing to support that work.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In August 2001, President George W. Bush allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but those funds were limited to just 21 stem cell lines that had already been developed.

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Embryonic stem cell research is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The key moral issue for President Bush in making that decision: Early-stage embryos that are only a few days old must be destroyed to derive new embryonic cell lines.

But scientists have argued that embryonic stem cells are especially versatile because they can morph into specialized cells that could generate new tissues to replace ill or damaged ones in the human body.

Today, Mr. Obama sided with those arguments, breaking with his predecessor’s policy.

BARACK OBAMA: In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent.

As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. And many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose this research. And I understand their concerns, and I believe that we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans — from across the political spectrum and from of all backgrounds and beliefs — have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research, that the potential it offers is great and, with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Conservative thinkers and scientists have argued that there’s another way to avoid those perils: using federal dollars for research on adult stem cells. Since they are found in developed tissues like bone marrow, embryos do not have to be destroyed.

But the president said those alternatives should not limit federal research on embryonic cells.

BARACK OBAMA: At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand — and possibly cure — some of our most devastating diseases and conditions.

Limits to the executive order

BETTY ANN BOWSER: There are limits to today's executive order. It does not address a separate legislative ban, which forbids the use of federal money to do research on human embryos or to create new embryonic lines.

To help determine how federal dollars should be allocated, the president gave the National Institutes of Health four months to develop new ethics guidelines for his executive order.

Embryonic stem cell research opponents, like Republican Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, said President Obama's executive order was a step in the wrong direction.

REP. CHRIS SMITH, R-N.J.: Human-embryo-destroying stem cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable, it is now demonstrably unnecessary. Assertions that left over embryos are better off dead so that their stem cells can be derived is dehumanizing and cheapens human life.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president also said today's decision fits into a larger approach his administration would take toward science.

BARACK OBAMA: Let's be clear: Promoting science isn't just about providing resources; it's also about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about letting scientists like those who are here today 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.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president signed a memorandum directing his Office of Science Policy to develop a strategy for what he said would restore scientific integrity to the government's decisions.