Where Are We on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and How Did We Get Here?

On March 9, 2009, President Obama gave a speech explaining why he will change the federal government’s policy regarding federal funding of Human Embryonic Stem Cell (HESC) Research that was instituted by President Bush in 2001. In his speech, Mr. Obama describes what I will call his “Non-Ideological Ideology” that he uses as a basis for his decision to expand federal funding for HESC Research.

A History of Federal Funding for Research on Human Embryos

To understand what President Bush did in 2001and what President Obama is doing in 2009, it helps to understand the history of the federal government’s policy on funding research on human embryos since 1979.

In 1979, after the first “test-tube” baby was born, a U.S. Advisory committee determined that federal funding for research on human embryos that was designed to assess the clinical aspects of in vitro fertilization (IVF) would be ethically acceptable. However, no President acted on this report’s recommendation.

In 1994, another advisory committee recommended to President Clinton that the federal government fund research on human embryos that were left over from IVF procedures. On average, most infertile couples who employ IVF will usually leave behind two to three human embryos that are not used to try to achieve a pregnancy. These human embryos are stored in a frozen state until the infertile couple decides:

  1. to implant them to try to achieve another pregnancy;
  2. to donate these excess frozen human embryos to science; or
  3. they die due to the parents no longer wishing to pay for their frozen storage.

This same panel also recommended to President Clinton that the federal government pay for the creation of human embryos via IVF procedures for the sole purpose of doing scientific research on them. President Clinton disagreed with the recommendations of this advisory committee and in 1996 Congress acted by banning federal funding for all types of research on human embryos by attaching an amendment to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appropriations bill that year. This is known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment which says:

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for (1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”

In 1998, a private company using their own funds and working with researchers at the University of Wisconsin cultured human embryonic stem cells. These human embryonic stem cells were made in the following way:

  1. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, using private sector funds, obtained some of these “excess” IVF human embryos through donations from local IVF clinics, with the permission of the human embryos’ parents, and used them to make the human embryonic stem cell lines.
  2. Once these excess IVF human embryos were obtained by the laboratory, they were thawed and the healthy ones were allowed to grow until the inner cell mass of these embryos were ready to be removed. Removal of the inner cell mass destroys the human embryo.
  3. A single cell of the inner cell mass was now introduced to a cell nutrient medium where it produces a collection of human embryonic stem cells. These human embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated and under the right biochemical conditions any one of these embryonic stem cells can be turned into any type of cell imaginable from a human nerve cell, to a human heart cell, to a human muscle cell, etc.

More information on this technique can be found at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/tech/stemcells/sccreate/

Given the production of human embryonic stem cell lines funded by private companies, a new advisory committee was formed in 1999 that recommended to President Clinton that the 1996 federal funding ban be modified to allow federal funding for the production of embryonic stem cell lines and the use of newly formed human embryonic stem cell lines in scientific research as long as these donated “excess” IVF human embryos were the source of the human embryos.

After this, NIH proposed that the federal government fund research using human embryonic stem cell lines that had already been made and paid for by funds from the private sector, using the rationale that human embryonic stem cells are not human embryos and, therefore, the federal government can pay for research on human embryonic stem cells and not be in violation of the 1996 congressional ban on federal funding for research on human embryos.

In his 2001 speech, President Bush set the policy of the federal government on funding human embryonic stem cell research that lasted till March 9, 2009 when he said:

“As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist. They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made. Leading scientists tell me research on these 60 lines has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures. This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.”

From this short historical narrative, one can see that President Bush did not ban HESC Research here in the USA. In fact, he allowed more federal funding for HESC Research than any other President before him. However, he did limit federal funding for HESC Research to research using only those 60 human embryonic stem cell lines that were made using private sector funds prior to his speech in 2001. He also prohibited federal funding for the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines and research on those newly created human embryonic stem cell lines since that would require the destruction of more human embryos and would, therefore, be in violation of the Congressional ban passed in 1996.

It is true that he said these human embryos had the “potential for life” while we know good and well that they are already living human beings. But for the rest of this article, I am going to refer to these embryos using the language President Bush used, in order to show the contrast between his position and that of President Obama according to the words of both men.

President Obama and His “Non-ideological Ideology”

On March 9, 2009, President Obama signed an executive order overturning the federal government’s policy on funding human embryonic stem cell research instituted by President Bush in 2001. In his comments prior to signing the executive order expanding the use of federal funding to pay for both the creation of new human embryonic stem cells lines and research using newly created human embryonic stem cell lines, President Obama stated the following:

This Order is an important step in advancing the cause of science in America. But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology. By doing this, we will ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs. That is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity.

Is it really possible to make scientific decisions free from some type of ethical or moral ideology as President Obama suggests? The answer is no. Everyone makes decisions in this area based on some type of ideology. President Bush believed that it was wrong for the federal government to fund research that would require the destruction of even potential human life and that was the ideology that he used to determine the policy of the federal government in 2001.

According Mr. Obama’s speech, the fundamental method that he uses to form his policy decisions on what type of scientific research the government should fund is based, according to him, on scientific facts — a “Non-Ideological Ideology”– even when those facts are somehow inconvenient to society.

“Inconvenient Scientific Facts” for President Obama’s “Non-ideological Ideology”

The scientific facts are clear that human embryonic stem cell research is years, perhaps even decades, away from finding a cure for any of the diseases scientists say they may have the potential to cure.

In contrast, adult stem cells are already being used in human clinical trials to treat people with diseases ranging from heart disease to diabetes and we can obtain adult stem cells from individuals WITHOUT destroying even potential human life.

Why does President Obama want to provide taxpayer funding for the research and development of cures using human embryonic stem cells when they do not seem to be very effective in animal models and there are so many ethical hurdles associated with them particularly when adult stem cells seem much more promising and do not have the ethical problems that human embryonic stem cells have? (See www.stemcellresearch.org for more information on Adult Stem Cell research and how it compares to Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.)

In addition, the scientific facts also show that scientists have the ability to take an adult cell from the human body and alter it into an induced pluripotent cell with abilities that are similar to a human embryonic stem cell. (See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v451/n7180/full/451858a.html for more information on induced pluripotent cells.)

Furthermore it has been reported that President Obama’s 2009 executive order also reverses President Bush’s 2001 order to the NIH that they actively find alternative ways to do research on stem cells that do not require the destruction of human embryos.

Are these “inconvenient scientific facts” listed above something that President Obama is just ignoring for political purposes (or for some other ideology) or is the President just ignorant of these facts? Why does Mr. Obama’s “Non-Ideological Ideology” not address these particular scientific facts that seem rather inconvenient to his goal of promoting research that requires the destruction of human life?

President Obama’s Arbitrary Limits on the Funding of Scientific Research Using His “Non-ideological Ideology”

In his March 9th speech, President Obama draws the line on how far he believes science should go in its investigations by stating:

We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

Notice how Mr. Obama declares that human reproductive cloning is “profoundly wrong” and “has no place in our society, or any society” but he never explains why. Are there some scientific facts in his “Non-Ideological Ideology” that demonstrate why human reproductive cloning is “profoundly wrong” both in our society and others? We are never told how his “Non-ideological Ideology” leads him to this rather broad conclusion.

Surely there are some scientists who would say that the government should fund basic research into human reproductive cloning because of its potential to yield basic scientific knowledge. These same scientists could rightly accuse Mr. Obama of shutting off scientific free inquiry into the study of human cloning and human clones and that in this area he is not allowing scientists to do their jobs “free of manipulation and coercion”. Clearly a good argument could be made that Mr. Obama’s decision to ban human reproductive cloning is quite arbitrary and in direct contradiction to the ‘scientific fact’ based “Non-Ideological Ideology” that he said he would use to decide what type of scientific research the government should fund.

Bush’s Ideology and Obama’s “Non-Ideological Ideology”

While individuals may have disagreed with where President Bush drew the line for federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cell lines, at least he was clear and consistent in his ideology. Mr. Bush said that he believed that it would be inappropriate for the federal government to encourage, through taxpayer funding, scientific research that required the destruction of human life, even potential human life. He clearly stated that using federal money to pay for the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines was inappropriate because it requires the destruction of human embryos.

In contrast, President Obama tells us that he goes about making decisions on policy by using his “Non-Ideological Ideology” which supposedly uses scientific facts, including inconvenient ones, as a basis to form policy. But he never addresses those inconvenient scientific facts about adult stem cells and stem cell alternatives that would make the destruction of potential human life unnecessary while searching for cures that would alleviate much suffering in the world.

In addition, he makes the claim that he has in effect rescued the American scientific community from the anti-science ideology of the Bush administration, while proclaiming with no scientific factual reasoning or any other clearly explained decision making methodology, except perhaps his “Non-Ideological Ideology”, whatever it is, as to why human reproductive cloning should be banned not only in our society but in all societies.

I fail to see how Mr. Obama’s “Non-Ideological Ideology” has saved anyone. In fact, I would say that his decisions in this area are enslaving the American scientific community and the American public to a course of action that is contrary to our national values of respect for life, even “potential human life,” and will cause more death and possibly even prolong the suffering of millions for years to come.

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  • non-ideological ideology >> relativistic ideology >> tyranny of relativism

    Um … where did we hear that lst one from?

    Fr. Frank

  • tcabeen


    You did an excellent job presenting the facts in this case. I have discussed this issue often with my son Matt (a molecular biologist at Yale University) and you are right on target. It is rather disturbing that this kind of double speak is being practiced this early in our new President’s term of office.

    Non-ideological ideology, indeed! Once one leaves ideology behind, and is guided only by “scientific facts” on what basis can one make any decision at all? Just because science says that conditions are just right for my house to burn down, should I burn it down? Scientists and Doctors in Germany in the 1930s implemented a scientific program to unburden the economy, and implemented it by terminating the mentally handicapped, aged and ill, all with good scientific support. God forbid that our legislators go down that road in an attempt to address the cost of health care, guided only by the same kind of “scientific” non-ideology used in this case!