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Friday, February 27, 2009

What About Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Mr. President?

It has now been over one month since President Obama was inaugurated. As someone who stands to benefit from the proper federal funding and oversight of embryonic stem cell research, I want to know why the President has yet to rescind the Bush administration restrictions of August 9, 2001 that were one of his signature appeasements to the Religious Right.
topic: Attack on Science

In the 2008 New York Presidential Primary I voted for Hillary Clinton. One of the deciding factors for me was her promise to rescind the Bush administration's onerous restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. At the time, then-candidate Obama was barely giving lip-service to the issue.

Although Obama eventually won the nomination, I soon became comfortable with his position on embryonic stem cell research. I was confident that shortly after his inauguration - perhaps within minutes -- that the August 9, 2001 restrictions would be history.

Or, so I thought.

It now seems that the president is now awaiting Congressional legislation that would fund the research. That may be well and good, but an immediate executive order rescinding the August 9, 2001 restrictions is still necessary. At the very least it would allow research laboratories more leeway in their current work.

As the The Baltimore Sun recently reported:

Little federal research has been conducted on human embryonic stem cells over the past eight years. In 2007, for example, the federal government allocated a mere $41 million to this research, compared with approximately $400 million invested by the states last year. The federal funding ban made it extremely difficult to attract young or new researchers to stem cell research, while prompting many established investigators to look elsewhere to conduct their work. The lack of progress in embryonic stem cell research has held back venture capital investment in this field as well.

The Sun previously reported that universities and other research centers are wary to begin this important work:

Researchers and their institutions are also hopeful that lifting the Bush administration's ban would end a logistical nightmare. Fear of violating the federal edict forced researchers to keep everything from pipettes to buildings paid for with federal dollars separate from anything and anyone involved with stem cell lines not approved for federal funding.

"It's going to make a huge difference," said Dr. Chi Dang, vice dean for research at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Cell Engineering. "Especially if I'm an investigator working on both types of cell lines, I have to be very careful. ... It's been a nightmare for some institutions."

Amy Comstock Rick, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, one of the leading advocacy organizations for this research, was spot-on when she recently declared, "Time matters, and we would really like to see an executive order out of the White House rescinding the Bush policy."

The issue of stem cell research extends into a larger issue: freedom of conscience. And to stand up for embryonic stem cell research is often synonymous with standing up to both the Religious Right and their neoconservative backers.

In an earlier article I outlined what so upsets ultra-orthodox Catholics, hard-line evangelicals and neocons about this issue:

But the greater issue here is Modernity. Both Straussian-neoconservatives as well as ultra-orthodox Catholics rail against it. Their common opposition to hESC research is classic manifestation of such a belief. Value Pluralism is not acceptable, only submission by all to one selective version of "the truth." Embryonic stem cell research clearly interferes with this scenario because it begins to demystify science and in their eyes, removes the virtue of human heroism (something Eric Cohen has elaborated upon in his writings).

It is the very same obsession with modernity that leads this strident alliance to also lash out against feminism, reproductive rights and at times, evolution. So it is puzzling why President Obama is dragging his heals on this issue.

Is he still trying to be bipartisan on this issue? That doesn't seem to make sense since there is already such support for the issue. Even anti-abortion conservatives such as U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch and John McCain have already expressed their desire to federally fund embryonic stem cell research.

One explanation I heard from a frontline stem cell activist that President Obama did not issue a rescission order on Inauguration Day simply because he did not want to throw sand in the eyes of the anti-abortion movement who would be holding their annual March for Life rally in the Capital on January 22.

Or perhaps the president has been listening too much to Rev. Rick Warren's tortured logic in opposition to this research? If so, it would be another example of this president needlessly bowing down to the Religious Right.

This past December I wrote, "The good news is that beginning shortly after noon on January 20, 2009 a presidential Executive Order will allow us to follow that admonition, despite what Pastor Warren or the Vatican may think." I earnestly believed that if Hillary Clinton would have issued an Executive Order on January 20, 2009 freeing embryonic stem cell research, so would a President Obama.

I was wrong.

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