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BIOETHICS

Red Tape Around Stem Cells?

Process Underpins Ethical Policy

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Rep. Jim Langevin, (D-RI), after signing an Executive Order on stem cells and a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity, Monday, March 9, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. SOURCE: AP/Gerald Herbert President Barack Obama shakes hands with Rep. Jim Langevin, (D-RI), after signing an Executive Order on stem cells and a Presidential Memorandum on scientific integrity, Monday, March 9, 2009, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

A year ago President Barack Obama signed an executive order overturning President Bush’s policy on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and ordering the National Institutes of Health to develop an ethically acceptable policy. In response, conservative critics asserted that the president was simply turning ethics over the self-interested scientists, that as a result medical research involving embryos would be “unbridled” by ethical considerations. Some suggested that the way this sensitive matter was handled demonstrated that, contrary to the impressions of many, President George W. Bush was more reflective on difficult moral issues than is President Obama.

Oh what a difference a year makes. As The Washington Post has reported, all but one of the lines that were approved for research funding under the Bush administration is tied up in the NIH policy process, though more than 40 others have been approved. Why the slow going? Because the Obama administration is asking the ethical questions that didn’t seem to occur to the Bush administration, such as whether the embryos were donated to research with full informed consent. Instead, President Bush simply drew an arbitrary line on the calendar, coinciding with his August 9, 2001 address. Cells derived before this date were ineligible for use in federally funded research. Now who’s more reflective?

The irony, of course, is that the scientific community that so fervently supported candidate Obama is frustrated at the delay in approving cell lines. This frustration is understandable. The NIH working group assigned to review the provenance of human embryonic stem cells lines has a difficult task that needs to be done right. Of course, had the Bush administration or its bioethics council come to grips with the issues of informed consent that were already recognized by the Clinton administration in its stem cell policy, this matter could have been addressed eight years ago. Had that been the case, the researchers would not now be experiencing the current delays. Instead, the Bush policy succeeded mainly in kicking the can down the road.

This turn of events does not fit neatly into the recent cultural conservative narrative that views science and/or scientists (often the two are conflated) with skepticism. The point is not to turn all such social issues over to scientists, nor that any scientific community can be trusted always to do the right thing. Rather, in circumventing the normal policy process, the Bush administration overlooked some critical questions that the system could have addressed. Process might be boring and frustrating, but it’s often there for a reason.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics and Professor of Medical Ethics and of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress.

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