Before an audience of scientists and advocates sitting in chairs and wheel chairs in the East Room of the White House, President Obama Monday morning signed an executive order rescinding President Bush’s 2001 order banning the use of federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines.
"I’m excited too," the president smiled when the crowd applauded his arrival, saying today’s action means "we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for and fought for these past eight years."
The president said that embryonic stem cells have the "potential to help us understand and possibly cure some of our most devastating diseases and conditions: to 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."
There was tangible excitement in the room, especially for those with disabilities hoping that research can help them walk again.
"I’ve been paralyzed for 28 years," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-RI, the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, who was injured while working with the Warwick Police Department in the Boy Scout Explorer program when a gun accidentally discharged struck him. "I always believed some day I would walk again. It’s become more real now."
Langevin noted that the Democratic-led Congress will now "take the next step and continue our fight to have a bill in Congress that will codify this executive order that President Obama issued today and codify it in law so that no future president could ever put the kind of restrictions that President Bush had put in place. We’ll never seen those kind of restrictions again."
Said another attendee, Roman Reed, who broke his neck 15 years ago in a football injury, "JFK was first to put man on moon. Obama will be first to have paralyzed walk on Earth."
Reed and his family are active in raising money for embryonic stem cell research at the University of California at Irvine, and Reed’s father Don, noted that "JFK took America to the moon on mountains of money. It will cost a great deal of funding for this huge matter to go forward…Freedom to do research, without the funding, is empty.”
Referring to the research done at UC Irvine by Dr. Hans Keirstead — who with colleagues enabled paralyzed rats to walk again using embryonic stem cells — Don Reed also told reporters that "in 2002 we held in our hands a rat that had been paralyzed and walked again due to stem cell research. Human trials start in July."
President Obama took a moment to pay his respects to those who view embryonic stem cell research as the taking of a human life, noting that "many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. And I understand their concerns, and I believe that we must respect their point of view."
He pledged that his administration would "never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."
That said, Mr. Obama said he rejected the "false choice between sound science and moral values….As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research, and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly. It’s a difficult and delicate balance."
But anti-abortion activists such as Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, were not assuaged. Upon hearing of President Obama’s plans for today, Smith said “Despite the lack of progress in human embryonic stem cell research and despite all the new and extraordinary medical breakthroughs in the use of adult stem cells, President Obama remains obsessed with killing human embryos for experimentation at taxpayer expense."
“Why does the President persist in the dehumanizing of nascent human life when better alternatives exist?" Smith asked. "Human embryo-destroying stem cell research is not only unethical, unworkable and unreliable— it is now, demonstrably unnecessary."
Today’s move by President Obama also included a a presidential memorandum directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.
The move, made as an implicit slap at the previous administration, would ensure that new policy would be based on sound science, with advisers appointed according to their "credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology."
The president made certain to avoid pie-in-the-sky pronouncements such as that of then-Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, who as a vice presidential candidate in 2004 told voters in Iowa that, "if we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."
"The full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated," President Obama said today. "Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research — from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit — and from a government willing to support that work. From life-saving vaccines, to pioneering cancer treatments, to the sequencing of the human genome, that is the story of scientific progress in America."
Speaking directly to advocates present, the president said he "cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek…But I can promise that we will seek them, actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground."
- Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller