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NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama Administration Issues Guidelines on Use of Embryos in Stem Cell Research

NATIONAL POLITICS & POLICY | Obama Administration Issues Guidelines on Use of Embryos in Stem Cell Research
[April 20, 2009]

The Obama administration Friday issued draft guidelines limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to cells derived from unused embryos created for fertility treatments and willingly donated by patients who have given written consent, the Washington Post reports. Although the guidelines "fell short of the open-ended policy" that some researchers and patient advocates would prefer, the new policy is "far less likely to spark controversy," the Post reports. Obama in March signed an executive order lifting many restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that were put in place under the administration of former President George W. Bush. Bush in August 2001 had limited federal funding for the research to the two dozen cell lines in existence at the time.

Raynard Kington, acting director of NIH, which developed the new guidelines, said the Obama administration was guided by "broad public support" to create a policy that bans the creation of embryos specifically for research as well as any form of therapeutic cloning (Connolly, Washington Post, 4/18). The guidelines also state that the research must comply with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a policy included in the annual federal appropriation bills that prohibits HHS from using appropriated funds for creating or destroying embryos for research. The provision has been attached to every federal appropriations bill since the mid-1990s, according to BNA (BNA, 4/20).

The new guidelines also were designed to reflect legislation (H.R. 810) that Congress has twice approved and that Bush vetoed twice. Kington said congressional support for the legislation is "the strongest indication of public support." He added, "There is not similar broad support for using stem cells from other sources" (Washington Post, 4/18). Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Michael Castle (R-Del.), sponsors of the vetoed legislation, said they would pursue legislative changes, including dropping the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, to increase funding for new stem cell lines (BNA, 4/20).

The new guidelines also specify that scientists must obtain written consent from embryo donors and that only voluntary donation is allowed, without pressure or financial incentives (Washington Post, 4/18). According to the Boston Globe, some scientists are concerned that the new restrictions on informed consent would block federal funding for research on stem cells that are already in use, as it may be impossible to identify the donors of the embryos. However, Kington said that research NIH currently supports would continue (Venkataraman, Boston Globe, 4/18). According to the Post, NIH is expected to receive $10 billion in funding from the economic stimulus package, and officials have said that a portion of that funding could be directed to embryonic stem cell research grants.

Reaction

The Post reports that many supporters of embryonic stem cell research praised the guidelines as a pragmatic approach to a controversial issue. Rachel Laser, a spokesperson for Third Way, said the policy is "thoughtful and balanced" and "demonstrates [Obama's] commitment to finding shared values on an issue that has long been divisive" (Washington Post, 4/18). Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology, said the new policy is "a reasonable compromise based on where the science stands now." He added that NIH and scientists "may need to revisit some of the details down the road depending on how the science develops" (Neergaard, AP/Chicago Tribune, 4/18).

However, some scientists expressed disappointment that some research would continue to be restricted. In issuing the executive order last month, Obama stressed that political considerations would not hamper scientific research. Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, said, "This seems to be a political calculus when what we want in this country is a scientific research calculus" (Washington Post, 4/18). Irving Weissman, director of the Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute at Stanford University, said NIH was "putting this ideological barrier in the way" of treating disease.

Some abortion-rights opponents also criticized the Obama administration, according to the New York Times. Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said the decision is "clearly part of an incremental strategy to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes."

The guidelines will be published this week in the Federal Register, followed by a 30-day public comment period before the rules become final by July 7, the Times reports. According to the Times, the announcement of the new guidelines is "likely to kick off a rush" of research applications for federal funding (Harris, New York Times, 4/18).

Research Guidelines 'Intelligent Solution' to Controversial Issue, Post Editorial Says

The new NIH guidelines on embryonic stem cell research "offer an intelligent solution to an issue that demanded great sensitivity," a Post editorial says. "While a decision with such deep moral and ethical considerations shouldn't have been left to scientists alone, the NIH outcome is a good one," the editorial says. It continues that "NIH apparently based its decision partly on scientific considerations -- that the new limitations wouldn't unduly restrict research -- and partly on other considerations," including public support. Although deciding whether to allow research on embryos from other sources is a "political assessment" that "really is a job for the White House, ... delegation -- or abdication, depending on your point of view -- in this case produced a sensible result," the editorial concludes (Washington Post, 4/19).