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Religious Tolerance logo

Stem cell research restrictions, & their reversal

Reactions to Obama's executive
order on stem cell research: 2009-MAR

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As for abortion access, most religious and social conservatives oppose embryonic research because of their beliefs concerning human personhood:

Most believe that human life in the form of human spermatozoa and an ovum -- forms of life containing human DNA -- become a human person during the process of conception. Although they do not discuss it often, many also believe that God creates an immortal soul for each pre-embryo during conception. Thus any activity to kill a pre-embryo or embryo is murder of a human being. Since the extraction of stem cells kills the embryo, stem cell research is sometimes called murder and compared to Nazi-era human experiments.

On 2009-MAR-09, President Obama signed an executive order, overturning President George W. Bush's 2001 restrictions on stem cell research.

Objections to President Obama's decision from religious and social conservatives:

Rogan Kersh, associate dean of New York University?s Wagner School of Public Service, wrote on 2009-MAR-07:

"Amid so much policy turmoil, reversing the Bush ban won't be as big a story as it normally might, but will arouse opposition from religious groups and other social conservatives opposed to this research on embryos."

Negative reactions were mainly focused on ethical concerns derived from religious beliefs concerning the attainment of personhood:

bulletNima Reza of the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family Action wrote:

"A bill recently reintroduced in the U.S. Senate would pour more federal funding into destructive embryonic stem-cell research. ..."

"David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, said the bill supports '... unethical and obsolete science. What it does is simply open the floodgates so more human embryos can be sacrificed'." 1

It is important to note the bill states that only embryos that were to be discarded would be used in research.

bulletTony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said:

"Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life.* President Obama's policy change is especially troubling given the significant adult stem cell advances that are being used to treat patients now without harming or destroying human embryos." 2

After the signing, Perkins stated:

"The action by the president today will, in effect, allow scientists to create their own guidelines without proper moral restraints,"

Perkins may not have been aware of the president's instruction to the National Institutes of Health to develop guidelines for stem cell research.

bulletJohn Boehner (R-OH),  House Republican Leader, said that research advances had made federal support for embryonic cells unnecessary. He was referring to recent announcements in Canada and Scotland regarding Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) Cells that have modified skin cells to have many of the properties of embryonic stem cells. He said:

"Republicans enthusiastically support adult, cord blood, and pluripotent stem cell research that have shown so much promise in recent years. The question is whether taxpayer dollars should be used to subsidize the destruction of precious human life.* Millions of Americans strongly oppose that, and rightfully so."

bulletRep. Chris Smith, (R - NJ) called Obama the "abortion president" on 2009-MAR-06. He said that Obama's stem cell policy was an expansion of:

"human embryo experimentation, ... Why does the president persist in the dehumanizing of nascent human life* when better alternatives exist? Human embryo-destroying stem cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable -- it is now, demonstrably unnecessary." 3

bulletSenator Sam Brownback (R-KS) wrote in a statement:

"If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes.:

He argued that adult stem cells that do not require killing of human embryos offer as much promise. 4

bulletCardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia is chairperson of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on pro-life activities. He described Obama's decision as:

"... a sad victory of politics over science and ethics. ... This action is morally wrong because it encourages the destruction of innocent human life,* treating vulnerable human beings as mere products to be harvested." 5

bulletMonsignor Elio Sgreccia, a leading Vatican bioethics specialist, discounted Obama's stated concern for the many tens of millions of persons who suffer or will suffer from disease and disorders for whom embryonic stem cell research hold promise for a cure or treatment. Sgreccia told Italian media:

"The motive for this decision should be seen in the pressure for profits." 5

bulletWendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America said:

"President Obama's order places the worst kind of politics above ethics. Politics driven by hype makes overblown promises, fuels the desperation of the suffering and financially benefits those seeking to strip morality from science." 8

bulletRep. Tom Price, R-Ga., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the president's new policy would "force taxpayers to subsidize research that will destroy human embryos." Actually, the only embryos used would be surplus embryos slated for destruction.
bulletThe Douglas Johnson, spokesperson of the National Right to Life Committee wrote:

"Obama opens door [sic] to human embryo farms. It's a sad day when the federal government will fund research that exploits living members of the human species as raw material for research." 10

This is a curious statement, because fertility labs across the U.S. and elsewhere already have "embryo farms" where hundreds of thousands of frozen fertilized embryos are held in storage waiting to be destroyed, allowed to die, or in very rare cases implanted in a womb. Yet there has been little effort made by conservatives to change the labs'  procedures. Stem cell research facilities only have inventories of stem cell lines, no embryos.

Support for Obama's decision:

bulletLarry Soler, executive vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation believes that If scientists can study these cells using U.S. government funding, it will speed research into those conditions. He said that the expected shift will:

"Update the current policy, which has been frozen in place since 2001 and allow broad use of new technologies discovered over the last eight years. ... For 30 million Americans with some form of diabetes, stem cell research offers a possibility to develop new treatments." 6

bulletBiotime Inc. of Berkeley, CA, is currently selling 88 cell lines that are carrying genetic diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Huntington?s disease and multiple sclerosis. They were were created by a Chicago fertility center from embryos discarded from in-vitro fertilization treatments. CEO Michael West said:

"As the entrepreneur who was out there trying to move the industry forward, the Bush policy massively impacted the willingness of investors to put up money. Many of us hope this will spawn the new era of regenerative medicine we?ve been waiting for all these years. What a sigh of relief." 6

bulletThe Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY is a "... secularist think tank and leading advocate of embryonic stem cell research." They applauded:

"... President Barack Obama's executive order reversing the eight-year-old ban on federal research funding for stem cell lines created after August 2001."

" 'The federal government has been a critical source of funds for health care research in many areas, and it is unconscionable that progress in stem cell research has been adversely affected for eight years by objections that reflected little more than religious dogma,' said Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI president and CEO. 'We are very pleased that President Obama has decided to support this research that is likely to provide substantial benefit to millions of individuals'."

Lindsay is the author of the 2006 CFI position paper, "Stem Cell Research: An Approach to Bioethics Based on Scientific Naturalism," produced by the Center for Inquiry's Washington D.C. Office of Public Policy to clarify the scientific standing on the ethics of stem cell research.

"... Paul Kurtz, CFI founder and chairman, stressed the significance of opening up access to fresh lines of stem cell for broad, federally funded research. 'If we are going to make significant progress in developing cures and therapies, researchers have to be able to utilize all avenues of study and funding for these studies must be available to the wider scientific community,' he said. 'Our brightest minds should never have been limited in their access to breakthrough medical technologies, which essentially allowed the research of our global competitors to progress with an eight-year head start. Reversing the funding ban is a move that most in the scientific community welcome as long overdue'."   

"Although critics point to advances in the research of "reprogrammed" human somatic cells, which offer hope as an alternative to embryonic stem cells, Lindsay notes that any research gains require study of different types of stem cells, as embryonic stem cells can have properties different than stem cells created from reprogrammed somatic cells. 'There is promise in many alternative areas of research, but it's imprudent to dismiss research on embryonic stem cells simply to appease opponents whose dogmatic insistence that an embryo is the moral equivalent of an adult human has no basis in science'." 

"The Center for Inquiry also supports wholeheartedly the president's accompanying memorandum assuring the scientific community freedom from political ideology. In a statement to reporters, Obama science advisor and past National Institutes of Health director Dr. Harold Varmus said the president was acting on campaign promises to return the state of science research to its pre-Bush prominence."

"Echoing CFI's 2006 Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism, Varmus said, 'Public policy must be guided by sound scientific advice'." 7

bulletDoug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and father of two children with Type I diabetes who might eventually possibly be treated with stem cells, said:

"I think patients everywhere will be cheering us on, imploring us to work faster, harder and with all of our ability to find new treatments On a personal level, it is an enormous relief and a time for celebration. ... Science thrives when there is an open and collaborative exchange, not when there are artificial barriers, silos, constructed by the government." 8

bulletRev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a minister of the United Church of Christ and a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary said:

"There is an ethical imperative to relieve suffering and promote healing. This is good policy for a religiously pluralistic society that cares about human suffering and the relief of human suffering." 9

bulletRev. Joel Hunter is evangelical pastor from Orlando, FL who serves on an Obama White House advisory panel. He was encouraged by Obama's action. He said:

"The principle is still that it's not only understandable but in some ways moral to use embryonic stem cells that are destined for destruction for research for helping people," he said. "I think we have to tread very lightly and very carefully, and I think we have to be vigilant for years to come." 9

bulletNeurosurgeon Dalton Dietrich at the University of Miami Stem Cell Institute commented:

"I have been waking up many mornings very excited about the possibility of using these cells to target many of the problems we see with stroke, brain trauma, spinal cord injury." 11

bulletJoshua Hare, director of the Miami institute, said that researchers will now be able to compare various treatments with embryonic stem cells, and adult cells. He said:

"We will be more scientifically free to look at all different kinds of cells and compare cells to one another. Our scientific opportunity is much much greater now. ... We are a profession about the respect for life. So everything we do with embryonic stem cells will be done with the utmost of care, ethics and oversight."11

Middle ground?:

Philip Pullella of Reuters News Service wrote:

"Father Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University, suggested several ways the Obama administration could find some middle ground."

"Reese's suggestions include not creating embryos for the sole purpose of research but instead using only excess embryos produced at fertility clinics that are scheduled to be destroyed anyway."

"He also said researchers should show that the research they are doing cannot be done with non-embryonic stem cells, and that research using embryonic stem cells should aim at advancing toward the goal of using only non-embryonic stem cells."

* Editor's criticisms:

bulletWe have never seen any reference by conservative religious or social groups to two very important facts concerning adult stem cells:
bulletThat adult stem cell research had a two decade advance start over embryonic stem cells. Thus, clinical trials for procedures using adult cells are already underway. The first human clinical trials using embryonic stem cells will probably involve paraplegic individuals paralyzed due to spinal column injuries. The first human trials in the U.S. are scheduled for mid-2009. The treatment has had notable success outside the U.S.
bulletAdult stem cells have already begun to specialize. This limits their range of application. Embryonic stem cells are theoretically capable of becoming any of the 220 cell types in the body.
bulletWe see many references to "human life" in articles by social or religious conservatives that really are referring to "human personhood." This needlessly confuses discussion on embryonic stem cell research and abortion access.
bulletOpponents to embryonic stem cell research rarely if ever refer to the fact that research is limited to those embryos that are surplus embryos in fertility clinics and that are already destined for destruction.
bulletSupporters of embryonic stem cell research rarely explain that the immense potential of stem cells will not result in treatments and cures being generally available for years.

References used in the above essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Nima Reza, "Legislation Would Add Funding for Destructive Embryonic Stem-Cell Research," CitizenLink.com, at: http://www.citizenlink.org/
  2. Ben Feller and Lauren Neergaard, "Pro-family leader denounces stem cell policy change," One News Now, 2009-MAR-07, at: http://www.onenewsnow.com/
  3. "Congressman Labels Obama 'Abortion President' Ahead of Stem Cell Reversal. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., accused Obama of launching two attacks on pro-life measures," FOXNews, 2009-MAR-06, at: http://www.foxnews.com/
  4. David Alexander, "Obama lists Bush restrictions on stem cell research," Reuters News Agency, 2009-MAR-09, at: http://www.reuters.com/
  5. Philip Pullella, "Stem cell go-ahead puts Obama at odds with pope," Reuters, 2009-MAR-10, at: http://www.reuters.com/
  6. Rob Waters, "Obama Stem Cell Shift Will Speed Hunt for Cures, Scientists Say," Bloomberg, 2009-MAR-08, at: http://www.bloomberg.com/
  7. "CFI Applauds Executive Order on Stem Cell Funding," Center for Inquiry press release, 2009-MAR-09, at: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/
  8. Seth Borenstein & Ben Feller, "Obama opens up stem cell work, science inquiries," Associated Press, 2009-MAR-09, at: http://news.yahoo.com/
  9. Eric Gorski, "Stem-cell decision exposes religious divides," Associated Press, 2009-MAR-10, at: http://www.onenewsnow.com/
  10. David Alexander, "Scientists laud stem-cell reversal," Toronto Star, 2009-MAR-10, Page A4.
  11. US Researchers Welcome Obama Stem-Cell Decision," VOA News, 2009-MAR-10, at: http://www.voanews.com/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-MAR-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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