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Obama Lifts Restrictions on Stem Cell Funding

The president signed an executive order to lift the restrictions in an East Room ceremony Monday morning, and issued a presidential memorandum on science policy.

“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” Obama said. “In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent […] I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

Listen to the president’s speech here:

His advisors say the move is part of a broader effort to shield the government’s scientific decisions from political influence.

“We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs” Harold Varmus, chairman of the White House’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, told reporters in a telephone conference Sunday. “This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

Researchers believe that embryonic stem cells may have the ability to treat many diseases, from Parkinson’s disease to paralysis, because the cells can develop into any other cell in the body. But the research is controversial because stem cell lines are developed from destroyed embryos.

In 2001, President George W. Bush restricted federal funding on stem cells to the few stem cell lines that were in existence before August 9, 2001. Since then hundreds of other lines have been developed, many of which researchers say are better suited for research, but scientists who wished to study them have had to rely on private funding.

“We’ve got eight years of science to make up for,” Dr. Curt Civin, director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, told the Associated Press. “Now the silly restrictions are lifted.”

But opponents of the research decried the news, and said that the president’s decision will open the gate of federal funding to other morally questionable research.

The new order does not mention one other controversial research ban. A congressional ban called the Dickey-Wicker amendment, enacted in 1996 and renewed every year since, bans the use of federal funds to create human embryos. Most embryos used to create stem cell lines come from fertility clinics, and would otherwise have been discarded.

Only Congress could overturn the Dickey-Wicker amendment, President Obama has no power to do so and has not taken a position on it.

But Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, told the New York Times: “The administration now steps onto a very steep, very slippery slope, many researchers will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos.”

Scientists and patient-advocate groups, however, reacted to the overturn of the federal funding ban with joy.

Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute, flew cross-country to attend the White House ceremony.

“I’ve been working and speaking out about the ban for about eight years, and now I want to be there,” he told Reuters.”We can lift the bureaucracy that has been established to scrutinize every purchase by every lab, and move ahead with this important research.”

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