Obama Reverses Course, Lifts Stem Cell Ban

Eight frustrating years end for advocates; others cite a moral slippery slope.

ByABC News
March 6, 2009, 3:36 PM

March 9, 2009— -- In what has been interpreted as a direct rebuke of former President George W. Bush, President Obama said today that his administration would make "scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

The president signed an executive order ending an 8½-year ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, paving the way for a significant amount of federal funds to flow to science.

"At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated," Obama said this morning before signing the order. "But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions."

The president's speech was equal parts hope for the new research and support for the scientists involved in such work.

"Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, 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: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research," Obama said. "We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield."

White House officials have said that the president's order will give the National Institutes of Health 120 days to develop ethical guidelines for the research.

The NIH said in a briefing today that they are currently looking for ways to streamline the research process and determine how quickly grant money can be made available. While most grant processes can take as long as nine months, which would delay funds reaching researchers for up to a full year, the NIH has indicated it will try to expedite the grant process to get money from the stimulus out quickly.

"Encompassed in [the executive order] will also be the requirements around guidelines that will be drafted by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] as they ... work with others around the country to make sure we're handling the issue responsibly," said Melody Barnes, the director of the president's Domestic Policy Council.

The president also signed a memorandum that Barnes says will "restore scientific integrity in government decision making." It will help ensure public policy is "guided by sound scientific advice," she said.

The memorandum covers all scientific research, including such areas as energy and climate change. The Bush administration was often accused of allowing politics to color its scientific decisions, something the administration denied.

Actor Michael J. Fox, a longtime advocate for embryonic stem cell research, expressed his enthusiasm for the president's plan and commended Obama for "recognizing the inherent value of research freedom and creating an environment in which it can flourish."

"Today is a new day. I'm thrilled to see President Obama has honored his commitment to get politics out of science," Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, told "Good Morning America." "The last few years have been incredibly frustrating for patients and researchers who believe that embryonic stem cell research has the potential to bring better treatment."

Former first lady Nancy Reagan, who has emerged as a prominent supporter of stem cell research after her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, passed away in 2004 after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, said in a statement that she is "very grateful" that Obama has reversed the federal government's policy on embryonic stem cell research funding.

"These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward," Reagan said in the statement. "Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases -- and soon."

One of those on hand for the signing at the White House was 34-year-old Roman Reed, who was paralyzed from the waist down at age 19, while playing college football.

The Fremont, Calif., resident and his parents have become tireless advocates for embryonic stem cell research. They were instrumental in getting California to fund this research when the federal government would not.

Reed told ABC News he is convinced embryonic stem cell research holds limitless promise.

"I know one day I will get out of this chair and pick up my son and hold him right. I promised my family that I would walk again, and I will make that dream come true," Reed said. "[President John F. Kennedy] was first to put man on [the] moon. Under President Obama the paralyzed will be the first to walk on Earth."

Reed's father and mother accompanied him to Washington.

"The last eight years have been frustrating," said Don Reed, Reed's father. "It's hard to have the president of the United States be an obstacle. We want the president on our side."

Also present were Washington, D.C., parents Laurie Strongin and Allen Goldberg, who used early stem cell technologies in an attempt to save the life of their son, Henry Strongin Goldberg. Henry, who had the rare genetic Fanconi anemia,died at the age of 7 when the experimental treatments failed to save him.

"Henry had a rare illness," Strongin said in a statement released Sunday. "Not one of the few stem cell lines that President Bush specified in his 2001 stem cell decision provided for research into Fanconi anemia or other devastating illnesses."

"It takes time to advance science from the laboratory to clinical trials to the bedside," Goldberg added in the statement. "We've lost eight precious years. We can't get Henry or that time back. Tomorrow the clock begins to tick anew, and the best medical minds can get to work."