Mixing politics and science

The President shakes hands with Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed at the age of 16, at the signing of his stem cell executive order. Fulfilling a
campaign promise, US President Barack Obama reversed his
predecessor’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem research on
Monday. From now on, American scientists may receive Federal
government support for research on stem cells taken from embryos,
whether they are clones or IVF spares. Most scientists were jubilant
– 10 Nobel laureates flanked the President as he signed an
executive order.

"What happened today
is huge," says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the
American Society for Cell Biology. "We've gone from having a
small number of cell lines eligible for federal funding to having at
least a few hundred."

In some ways, the
President’s decision is less significant than the jubilation
suggests. First of all, it leaves in place a major obstacle to
cloning embryos, the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment. This bans funding
for research that involves the destruction, injury or death of a
human embryo. So, to do therapeutic cloning, scientists will still
have to obtain funding from state governments or private donors,
although they can now use federal funding to work on stem cell lines
derived from cloned embryos.

This is why the New
York Times complained
the job of dismantling President Bush's respect-for-embryos approach
remains unfinished: “Congress should follow Mr Obama’s lead and
lift this prohibition so such important work can benefit from an
infusion of federal dollars.” But whether Congress will support
cloning embryos is anyone’s guess.

Second, human
embryonic stem cells are practically obsolete, at least for curing
dread diseases and injuries like spinal cord injury, Parkinson's
disease and diabetes. A breakthrough discovery in November 2007 by
Shinya Yamanaka showed that pluripotent cells with all of their
potential for cures could be created from ordinary skin cells –
without the ethical baggage. In fact, they are superior because they
are a 100% match genetically. Despite all the controversy surrounding
embryonic cells, most people do not realise that no one has yet
created a successful stem cell line from a human clone.

Most scientists now
believe that cures will come from this new type of stem cells,
induced pluripotent stem cells, and that embryonic stem cells will be
used mostly for drug discovery, genetic research, and for
benchmarking the performance of other types of stem cells.

Obama tactfully alluded to
this in his
eloquent remarks
. “At this moment, the full promise of stem
cell research remains unknown,” he said, “and it should not be
overstated... I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and
cures we seek. No President can promise that.”

So the main effect
of Obama’s decision was to boost the morale of an important
constituency, the scientific community. To cement his image as a
flagbearer of enlightened thinking, the President also set down
guidelines for his Administration which
guarantee scientists freedom from political interference. These will,
he said:

that in this new Administration, we base our public policies on the
soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisors based on their
credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that
we are open and honest with the American people about the science
behind our decisions. That is how we will harness the power of
science to achieve our goals – to preserve our environment and
protect our national security; to create the jobs of the future, and
live longer, healthier lives.”

words, indeed. But, for the most part, they are only words.
Encouraging scientists to destroy human embryos even though the best
and brightest stem cell scientists think that this is not needed for
cures is not basing public policy on the soundest science. Gushing
over the factitious potential of embryonic stem cells for cures is
not being open and honest with the American people.

President had harsh words for his predecessor. He had made “a false
choice between sound science and moral values” by restricting
embryo research in order to safeguard the sanctity of human life at
all stages of development. But as it turns out, Bush's policy,
however imperfect, was sound. Destroying embryos was not the road to
cures. A perfectly ethical method of obtaining stem cells was
discovered by a Japanese researcher who shrank from destroying
embryos which could have become his own children. In the end ethical
science is always good science.

real story is that Obama's stem cell policy was based almost entirely
on the rank political calculation that he cannot afford to alienate
the powerful pro-abortion groups and patient advocacy groups who
supported him in his campaign. Following the path of least resistance
was a no-brainer.

the first major bioethics decision of his presidency, Monday's
announcement has set a bad precedent. In the not-so-distant future,
Obama may have to decide whether to support cloning embryos, setting
up markets for human organs, and physician-assisted suicide. Enormous
pressures will be brought to bear on him by their partisans. When it
is his turn to choose between “sound science and moral values”,
will he choose the latter, no matter what the cost?

Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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