From the moment President George W. Bush imposed federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, Big Biotech, patient advocacy groups, celebrities and the media have been obsessed with eviscerating the policy. Indeed, although the Bush administration funded about $175 million in grants for human embryonic stem cell research, and despite the literally billions poured into the field from public and private sources such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, and philanthropists, the public was continually warned that embryonic stem cell research in the United States was in danger of withering on the vine due to Bush.
With such abundant funding, that wasn't true. Nor was the charge that Bush's policy was "anti-science" because it funded only research on stem cell lines in existence as of Aug. 9, 2001. But the controversy was never a science debate. It was – and remains – an ethics debate that impacts directly on the importance and meaning of human life. Indeed, the question raised by embryonic stem cell research is whether it is morally right to treat and exploit human life – even at the nascent stage – as a mere natural resource.
That concern did not start with Bush. Since 1996 with the passage of the Dickey Amendment and continuing in a bill just signed by President Barack Obama, it has been illegal for the federal government to directly fund research that destroys human embryos.
Bush's policy went a step further, preventing funding to study stem cell lines derived from destroyed embryos in anticipation of receiving federal funding – the reason for the 2001 date.
Last week, the new president kept a campaign promise to free up federal funding for all embryonic stem cell lines whenever derived. But he also told the country that ethics still matter, stating: "We will support it (embryonic stem cell research) only if it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse."
How is that different in kind from what Bush did? Are ethical constraints "anti-science" only if one disagrees with where the lines are drawn? Beyond that, as he revoked the Bush restrictions, Obama also undermined a promising field of regenerative medical research that holds tremendous potential to bridge the bitter cultural divides rending the country – pro-life vs. pro-choice, liberal vs. conservative, pro- and anti-embryonic stem cell research – the very kind of policy the president has repeatedly promised to pursue. This field involves alternative methods for obtaining pluripotent stem cells, which theoretically can become any tissue type, without destroying embryos.
One such alternative, "cell reprogramming," transforms ordinary body cells in the lab into "induced pluripotent stem cells." Science hailed the development of IPSCs as the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2008 and for good reason: They have already been used to create patient-specific, tailor-made stem cell lines for use in drug testing and research – the very benefit researchers once claimed that only therapeutic cloning could provide.
In 2007, President Bush issued an executive order requiring the government to fund research into alternatives. Inexplicably – and without discussing it in his speech – Obama revoked this Bush order, too. He claimed he wants to fund such research, but what he did was take away the existing legal requirement that it be done. We have seen this same undermining of alternatives here in California. Last year, Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) introduced a bill (SB 1565) that would have, among other provisions, made it easier for the CIRM to fund IPSC research. That proposed legal shift in emphasis was opposed adamantly by the CIRM, and despite overwhelming bipartisan support, fell to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto.
If pursuing the best and most ethical science were truly the goals, why deflect increased support for this promising research to which no one objects? Perhaps it is because this debate involves more than stem cells taken from embryos "left over" from in-vitro fertilization – as the argument is usually couched – which brings us back to ethics. In the wake of the Obama changes in federal policy, the New York Times editorially threw down a gauntlet, calling for both the rescission of the Dickey Amendment and federal funding of human therapeutic cloning research.
Now that the Bush restrictions are history, look for these battles – which again are not science debates – to flare in the years to come. In this sense, embryonic stem cell research threatens to become a launching pad to an ever-deepening erosion of the unique moral status of human life.