President-elect Barack Obama could reignite an emotional national debate over the promise and the perils of medical research using cells taken from human embryos. Like previous presidents, Obama is expected to issue a flurry of executive orders after he takes office Jan. 20. Some could reverse Bush administration policies; others could promote his own.
Ending a ban on government funding for research using embryonic stem cells would be among the most controversial. Scientists say cells taken from human embryos offer the most promise of being used to develop therapies for Parkinson's, diabetes and other diseases. Some scientists have found cells taken from adults also have lifesaving potential.
If Obama issues an order reversing the ban, Congress will have to act again — and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested it will. A law on the books since 1996 bans funding of research that harms embryos and would prevent funding for research even on cells from embryos slated to be discarded by fertility clinics.
In the early 1990’s when this proposed ban was being debated on Capital Hill, "Before the U.S. government condones with federal funding research that results in the destruction of living human embryos, we have the moral obligation to explore and exhaust every ethical alternative," Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, said at a House subcommittee hearing on the issue.
But the lines aren’t clearing drawn. Anti-abortion politicians such as Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Gordon Smith of Oregon wanted Bush to permit federal funding for research because of the embryonic cells' potential in fighting disease.
Hatch said he decided to support embryonic stem cell research only after studying the legal, medical, religious and ethical issues involved. He has said, "The reality today is that each year thousands of embryos are routinely destroyed. Why shouldn't embryos slated for destruction be used for the benefit of mankind?"
Having a family member with diabetes makes me so inclined to agree with Senator Orrin Hatch for probably the only time in my adult life. I have been weighing this issue for some time and I know that adult stem cells have showed promise, but we cannot say embryonic stem cells have not, even with existing research on old stem cell lines, when more specific and vast research has been stymied by the government.
In the meantime, other countries, like Iran, make headway in these areas while we fall behind. The United States should be leading the way, by example, on how to do this research ethically and responsibly. Why not put back in place a law similar to one by the Clinton administration that allowed federal money for stem-cell research using embryos if the work is funded by private money and the embryos come from fertility clinics and would otherwise be discarded?
I believe we should be doing something life-affirming with these fertilized eggs that otherwise, will just end up in a landfill. If you had a family member, a child with diabetes, Parkinson’s, a spinal cord injury, or other disease that could be treated, what would you say? I say yes. I hope Obama does too.