PRESIDENT Obama's executive order on embryonic stem-cell research yesterday put the world's most effective supporter of medical innovation - the National Institutes of Health - onto the frontline of a new and promising approach to devastating diseases. The order removes an unjustified hindrance on the ability of American science to seek new treatments.
Obama's action has the support not just of a large majority of the public but of bipartisan majorities in Congress, which twice passed bills for expanded stem cell research vetoed by former President Bush. Obama was quick to note that researchers are far from turning the capacity of embryonic stem cells to develop into all cell types into cures. But he has greatly expanded resources for them.
For almost eight years, Bush's 2001 order limiting US stem-cell funding held scientists back. While several states, universities, and independent institutes financed embryonic stem-cell work, the absence of NIH support clouded the field and caused many scientists to go overseas or to explore less controversial avenues.
The field is controversial because experimentation with stem-cell lines destroys the embryos, which are left over from fertility treatments. Some critics equate that with abortion, and Bush's 2001 order reflected that view. And yet others come to a different moral conclusion - and are further swayed by the power that stem-cell research could have to save human life.
Obama yesterday acknowledged the ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cells, and called on the NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish rules for their use. These would likely include a requirement for informed consent by the couples whose excess embryos will be used. He made it clear that his policy would prohibit cloning for human reproduction. He called such cloning "dangerous" and "profoundly wrong."
The president also signed a memorandum yesterday instructing his Office of Science and Technology Policy to devise means of "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making." Throughout the Bush administration, government scientists working on issues like climate change, mercury pollution, emergency contraception, endangered species preservation, and stem cells complained that their findings fell victim to political priorities. Obama must ensure his science office produces measures, including protections for whistle-blowers, to keep that from recurring.
Embryonic stem cells might hold a key to conquering diseases from Parkinson's to diabetes to even cancer - diseases that afflict millions of people. Through his actions yesterday, the new president reconfirmed his campaign theme of hope.