Obama Signs Executive order in Support of Stem Cell Research

On March 9, 2009 President Obama signed an executive order expected to set in motion increased stem cell research that supporters believe could uncover cures for serious ailments like diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and paralysis. Obama's action reverses former President George W. Bush's policy on stem cell research by undoing an August 9, 2001 Executive Order that prohibited the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells lines created after that date. (The 2001 Executive Order did not affect federal research on the 21 stem cell lines that were created prior to that date.) The 2001 directive was the result of a moral debate as to whether embryonic stem cell research should continue because such research requires the destruction of human embryos.

In reversing the directive, Obama noted, “Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.  In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent.”  Obama said that he came down on the side of reversing the directive because the “majority of Americans” support increased federal funding for stem cell research due to the great lifesaving potential it holds. Proponents from former first lady Nancy Reagan to the late actor Christopher Reeve had pushed for ending the restrictions on research. “When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives,” Obama said.

Obama called his decision a “difficult and delicate balance” and he promises that the stem cell research will be conducted responsibly with “proper guidelines and strict oversight.”  Obama further assured that the government will “never open the door” to using this research for human cloning. 

Although President Obama’s Executive Order reverses the 2001 Executive Order, it does not address or affect an earlier legislative ban on using federal money to support researchers who develop stem cell lines by destroying embryos.  However, this earlier legislative ban does not prohibit the use of federal funds moving forward to researchers who created stem cell lines using private money. 

Obama has given the National Institutes of Health 120 days to provide guidelines to stem cell scientists for applying for research grants to research the hundreds of human embryonic stem cell lines, many of them marked with genes for diabetes, Parkinson's and other ailments.  Obama has also already called upon Congress to consider the amount of funding that will be provided. 

Whatever your personal view may be about the stem cell debate, there is indisputable evidence that stem cells save lives.  In addition, although President Obama’s directive is a great step in stem cell research, there will likely always be controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells.   Fortunately numerous successes have been linked to stem cells obtained from non-controversial sources, including cord blood and adult menstrual stem cells.  Since the first cord blood stem cell transplant in 1988, an estimated 10,000 cord blood transplants have occurred worldwide.  Stem cells from cord blood have recently been used for the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy, leukemia, and severe combined immune deficiency.  Cord blood stem cells are widely considered to be more advantageous than stem cells from other sources because they have a high rate of engraftment, are more tolerant of HLA mismatches, result in a reduced rate of graft-versus-host disease and are rarely