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NIH To Establish Guidelines For Use Of Embryos Under Obama Stem Cell Policy

May 15, 2017

As expected, President Obama on Monday issued an executive order reversing former President George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the Washington Post reports. Although some observers expected that Obama would restrict federally funded researchers to working on stem cell lines derived from unused embryos created for infertility treatments, the president "left that key issue open," according to the Post. Instead, Obama directed NIH to decide "whether to endorse studies on cells obtained from much more contentious sources," such as embryos created specifically for research purposes or through cloning techniques, the Post reports. Thomas Murray, director of the bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, said that Obama "left it wide open" and that researchers are "going to have to face a host of morally complicated, politically charged questions." He added that there is "not an easy path forward for them out of here." According to the Post, NIH, which has 120 days to make a determination, now "finds itself confronting far more extensive questions than its officials were contemplating" (Stein, Washington Post, 3/10).

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research criticized Obama's decision to not impose limits restricting researchers to unused infertility embryos. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said that it "appears" that Obama is "opening the door to NIH funding researchers who would deliberately create embryos for the purpose of research." He said it is "starting to look like he's basically giving NIH the green light to do whatever they can get away with" (Wilson, The Hill, 3/9).

According to the Post, NIH had begun drafting guidelines in anticipation of Obama's announcement. The agency was "assuming that funding would be limited to lines from embryos discarded after in vitro fertilization," the Post reports. Officials at NIH said they would consult guidelines produced by other groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences and the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Story Landis, head of NIH's stem cell task force, said the "goal is to expand the opportunities for human embryonic stem cell and human stem cell research." She added that Obama's order "offers us the opportunity to look carefully at how we might best identify responsible and scientifically worthy science that the NIH should be funding."

The Post reports that federal law bans the direct use of taxpayer funds to create or destroy embryos for research purposes; however, it is legal to do so through private funding. The ethical debate "centers on" whether allowing federal funding on cell lines from such sources "will encourage such activity," the Post reports. Ronald Green, a Dartmouth College bioethicist, said that it is "a really explosive issue" and that there are people on both sides of the political spectrum who oppose creating embryos specifically for research purposes (Washington Post, 3/10). Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) -- who sponsored two bills that Bush vetoed that would have allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research -- said Congress should pass a bill for Obama to sign in the wake of his executive order. DeGette said such a law is necessary to avoid another policy reversal under a future administration. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) said that he has been working with DeGette on a bipartisan bill for about five years. Both Castle and DeGette said that it is important to include ethical guidelines in the law (Kohler, AP/Denver Post, 3/9).

Some critics of embryonic stem cell research argue that federal funds also should be prohibited for cells derived using cloning techniques. Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said researchers are "breaching an entirely new ethical line" if they "go beyond the so-called spare embryos in fertility clinics." He also said, "If you fund research using stem cells from human cloning, you will be encouraging human cloning" (Washington Post, 3/10). Marjorie Dannenfesler, head of the antiabortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List, said, "True scientific integrity is advancing successful science that respects moral standards and the inherent value of human life at all stages." She added that it is "shocking to learn" that Obama's "first priority is promoting the idea that American taxpayers should fund the destruction of human life" (The Hill, 3/9).

Obama Issues Directive To 'Guarantee Scientific Integrity'

In addition to the embryonic stem cell announcement, Obama on Monday issued a directive to "guarantee scientific integrity" in federal policymaking within his administration, the New York Times reports. According to the New York Times, Obama's memorandum "sets forth broad parameters for how his administration would choose expert advisers and use scientific data." Obama's top science adviser will draft guidelines that will apply to every federal agency. The guidelines will stipulate that agencies will be expected to select science advisers based on expertise, not political ideology, and will also provide protection to employees to expose "the misuse or suppression of scientific information," the New York Times reports (Stolberg, New York Times, 3/10).

According to the Los Angeles Times, Obama said the directive was aimed at "restoring scientific integrity to government decision making" (Tankersley/Levey, Los Angeles Times, 3/10). The comment was aimed at former President George W. Bush, who was "often accused of trying to shade or even suppress the findings of government scientists" on issues like stem cells, sex education and contraception, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 3/10).

Additional Coverage

The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday also published a set of questions and answers regarding the policy change (Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune, 3/10). USA Today also included a Q & A about the policy change (Vergano, USA Today, 3/10).

NPR's "Morning Edition" on Tuesday reported on how the executive order and presidential memo on scientific integrity "aren't helping the administration's efforts to reach out to the pro-life community" (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/10).

NPR's "All Things Considered" on Monday included a discussion with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca about the policy changes (Norris, "All Things Considered," NPR, 3/9).

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