President Obama has signed an executive order overturning a signature initiative of the Bush administration — an 8-year-old ban on federal funding for research on embryonic-stem-cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.
Public expectations for stem-cell research are high, perhaps impossibly high, and Obama began his White House announcement on a cautionary note: "At this moment, the full promise of stem-cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated."
Almost immediately, he held forth the possibility that with new federal backing stem-cell research could "regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair; to spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles; to treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them."
That is a tall order and raises hopes that cruelly may never be fully realized, but the weight of opinion among medical researchers is that research based on stem cells, which can develop into any kind of tissue or cell in the body, replacing nerves and organs damaged by disease or injury, is their most promising avenue of inquiry.
President George W. Bush had attempted a compromise in an acrimonious debate over the federal role in stem-cell research. Congress had earlier banned any use of federal funds to create embryos for research; the researchers typically get the days-old embryos from private fertility clinics where the excess embryos were destined to be destroyed.
Bush approved federally funded research on 21 existing lines of stem cells, but researchers said the lines were inadequate. With Obama’s order, the government can fund stem-cell research as long as the money isn’t used to create embryos.
Over the eight years, the research moved into private labs or overseas, where some laboratories made wildly overstated claims of their progress. With federal involvement, domestic research at least will be held to some account.
In a sense, the stem-cell debate is a stalking horse for a much more serious issue — human cloning. Obama called it "dangerous, profoundly wrong" with "no place in our society, or any society."
Federal funding and federal oversight make it much less likely that a renegade researcher would try.