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Edge of the precipice

Science | Obama's new guidelines on stem-cell research will restrict federal funding of the destruction of embryos but won't end the practice

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

In Washington what's old is new again. Rahm Emanuel is in the White House, along with other Clintonites, and now government-funded researchers will be operating under Clinton-era rules governing embryonic stem-cell research.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which administers most of the public funding for scientific research in the United States, issued in April new restrictions on the research.

Those restrictions prohibit scientists from receiving federal funds to create or destroy human embryos for research-restrictions that have already had the power of law under the 1995 Dickey-Wicker amendment. The restrictions have continuing support in Congress, for now. Under the Obama administration rules, researchers may only use embryos from fertility clinics that are set to be discarded-and parents must give consent to researchers to use those embryos. In other words, destruction of embryos will happen, but not by federally funded researchers' decisions.

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President Obama signed an executive order in March removing President Bush's limits on embryonic stem-cell research. At the time he said his administration would ban human cloning, but few knew whether that could apply to the production of embryos for research-a practice currently banned.

President Clinton was the first president to open the streams of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in 1993, when stem-cell research was coming to the fore, though he banned the creation of embryos for research. In 2000, the NIH issued looser guidelines allowing federally funded researchers to use stem-cell lines that had already been created from embryos-with the understanding that the scientists that destroyed embryos to create those lines operated with private funds to do so.

President Bush changed that in 2001 with an executive order limiting the stem-cell lines eligible for federal funds to those created before his order and banning federally funded research on new lines created thereafter.

Some scientists are frustrated by the NIH restrictions under Obama, alleging it was a political move designed to appease the right. Some evangelical leaders cheered the guidelines last week, like Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who said they "embody caution and care that respect pro-life values."

But overall the right was not appeased.

The new restrictions "will create an incentive to cannibalize the so-called 'leftover embryos,'" said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in a statement.

Robby George, a jurisprudence professor at Princeton University, opposed Obama's original reversal of the Bush stem-cell restrictions, but he said these new restrictions keep researchers from going "over a precipice."

Acknowledging that as a candidate Obama "pledged to take this step," as did GOP candidate John McCain, George points out that in the past Obama has supported legislation to fund the creation of embryos for research. He called for lobbying efforts aimed at "putting the prohibition of funding for all forms of human cloning (and, indeed, all research involving the creation of human beings for research in which they are destroyed at any stage of development) on a more secure footing."

The Princeton legal scholar is scheduled to debate Pepperdine legal scholar Doug Kmiec, both Roman Catholics, over the NIH guidelines and potential for cloning under the Obama administration at the National Press Club May 28.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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