Stem-Cell Doubletalk

Original Article

President Obama has often claimed that his administration will pursue policies designed to breach the cultural and political divides that rend our country. He has also promised to bring “transparency” to the principal actions of his administration. Unfortunately, the president violated both of these assurances in his recent executive order on embryonic stem-cell funding.

The mainstream media—still obsessed with discrediting all things “Bush”—focused gleefully on the expected rescission of the restriction that under Bush limited federal funding to embryonic stem cell lines in existence on August 9, 2001. But opening up all existing and future embryonic stem cell lines to federal funding is not all that Obama did. While he made no mention of it in his widely covered East Room speech, a quiet press release issued on Monday stated that in addition to the above change, “Executive Order 13435 of June 20, 2007, which supplements the August 9, 2001, statement on human embryonic stem cell research, is revoked.”

That opaque notice tells us absolutely nothing. But a little research makes clear why the administration was so terse: The 2007 executive order required the government to make a point of funding what are known as “alternative methods” for obtaining pluripotent stem cells. These are procedures that don’t require the destruction of embryos to derive these powerful cells, which are theoretically able to become any tissue in the body. It is this capacity that scientists say makes embryonic stem cells so valuable.

And indeed, the big news in biotechnology in 2007-08—proving the wisdom of the Bush policy—was the development of a technique known as “cell reprogramming,” in which ordinary human skin and other cells are transformed into “induced pluripotent stem cells” (IPSC). This achievement and subsequent advances in research were deemed so impressive and important that the journal Science named the development of the IPSC as the scientific “breakthrough of the year” for 2008.

What makes Obama’s stealth action so maddening is that he claimed to support “groundbreaking work to convert ordinary human cells into ones that resemble embryonic stem cells” in his stem-cell speech. But what he did was eradicate the very executive order that guaranteed that such science would be federally funded—an order that as far as I know nobody was lobbying to revoke.

As criticism of Obama’s betrayal of alternative sources has slowly bubbled up in cyberspace, some have claimed that he “had” to rescind the order because it contained a clause describing embryos as human life. Here is the offending text from the Bush 2007 executive order:

Section 2 (d) human embryos and fetuses, as living members of the human species, are not raw materials to be exploited or commodities to be bought and sold;

But that clause is not only accurate biology—human embryos and fetuses are not Martian, after all—but also reflects federal law. Besides, if telling the biological truth in an executive order so seared the delicate Obama sensibility, he could have reissued the alternatives-funding order omitting the biological facts about nascent human life—and then publicized it as an example of a bridge across the cultural divide that he has promised to erect.

I can think of only two reasons for this unwarranted revocation: vindictiveness against all things “Bush” or considered by the left to be “pro-life”; or a desire to get the public to view unborn human life as morally akin to a crop ripe for the harvest so as to open the door to funding destructive embryo and human cloning research—actions advocated, not coincidentally, by the New York Times in the immediate wake of Obama’s stem-cell executive order.

Wait, there’s a third potential reason: both of the above.

President Obama’s silent revocation of alternative-methods funding as a special project of the federal government betrayed the concerted attempts made over the last eight years to find a common way forward in one of the most ethically contentious areas of biotechnological research. So much for bridging the country’s cultural and political divides. So much for transparency in governance. So much for taking the politics out of science.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.