President Barack Obama has signed an executive order overturning the August, 2001 ban on federal funding for certain kinds of embryonic stem cell research. How one feels about the decision depends on how one feels about when human life begins.
Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of embryos to create stem cells, tissue that can develop into any kind of tissue in the human body. If one considers oneself pro life to the extent that one believes that human life begins at conception, then it would follow that this kind of research is ethically suspect at best, morally reprehensible at worse. Embryonic stem cell research could no more be allowed than research that involves the destruction of living human beings.
If one is not pro life or does not believe that human life begins at conception, however, then the Bush era restrictions on stem cell research are silly, based on a superstition. Promising lines of research are being closed off, so this view maintains, for no good reason.
Clearly President Barack Obama has come down on the latter side. However, because of the Congressional restrictions placed on stem cell research under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, federal funding cannot be used for the actual destruction of embryos to create stem cells. That part of the process still has to be funded with private money. With Democratic majorities in the Congress, that restriction may be also overturned.
Contrary to some popular belief, the Bush administration did not ban stem cell research. The August, 2001 restrictions allocated federal dollars to the embryonic stem cell lines that then existed, somewhere between twenty and seventy some estimate. Private funding for embryonic stem cell research was still allowed and full federal funding was allowed for adult stem cell research.
It has been the view of those supporting embryonic stem cell research, however, that the Bush era restrictions had closed off promising research, forestalling potential miracle cures for ailments ranging from spinal cord injuries to diabetes. Complicating that view has been news of recent advances in adult stem cell research, which has suggested that cells taken from an adult human being, without killing anyone, can be made to develop into a stem cell. The ethical and moral problems with embryonic stem cell research are therefore avoided.
Also, the promised miracle cures, while mind blowing in their implications, are likely years, if not decades in the future. The pain staking nature of science research and the bureaucratic approval procedures imposed by the federal government all but guarantee that.
Nevertheless, by the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama has now opened up embryonic stem cell research for federal funding. That does not mean that the debate is over or that the controversy has been put to rest.
There is one other question, left unanswered. Will federal dollars allocated to stem cell research expand to cover newly permitted embryonic stem cell research? Or will money be taken away from adult stem cell research to fund embryonic stem cell research. That is a question that begs clarification.
Sources: Obama Is Leaving Some Stem Cell Issues to Congress, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, March 9th, 2009
Trading Places, Joseph Bottum, Wall Street Journal, November 28th, 2007