A Call for a New Federal Embryonic Stem Cell Research Agenda

The incoming Obama administration will soon have the opportunity to reassert U.S. scientific leadership in two of the most exciting and promising fields of biomedical research—embryonic stem cell science and regenerative medicine. It’s an opportunity our nation cannot afford to miss.

In the 10 years since researchers at the University of Wisconsin first isolated and characterized human embryonic stem cells, scientific studies have repeatedly shown the vast potential these cells offer. As research tools they are already deepening our understanding of human development, health, and disease. And as therapeutic tools they show enormous promise for their potential to replace, reconstruct, or regenerate failing tissues and organs. In both cases, embryonic stem cells give patients the hope and promise of defeating diseases for which there is little or no hope today.

The American people recognize this promise. Polls show that a solid majority favor more federal support for embryonic stem cell research. And the people’s representatives in the House and Senate have twice passed legislation that would loosen the stranglehold on federal funding for such research—only to watch in dismay as President George W. Bush, who unilaterally imposed those restrictions in 2001, ignored that congressional consensus by vetoing the legislation.

The current Bush policy harms U.S. interests not just because it severely restricts the use of federal funds for a potentially life-saving new branch of medical science. It also hurts the nation because, to the extent it allows such research to go forward, it demands almost nothing in the way of ethical constraints. Indeed, the current administration’s policy, which was announced through nothing more than a television pronouncement and a follow-up “media advisory,” includes virtually none of the ethics restrictions that were poised to be imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services at the end of the Clinton administration.

Those rules were rejected by President Bush when he took office and were never implemented—despite the conceit of conservatives who claim a higher moral ground in the stem cell debate. In contrast, President-elect Obama promises to correct this error in scientific and ethical judgment early in his administration. The Center for American Progress has been working in the stem cell policy arena for years, studying the science as well as the field’s ethical and policy implications, and offers the following guidance to the president-elect.

Within the first week of taking office, President Obama should call upon the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health to devise a plan for dismantling the current, overly restrictive Bush administration policy on the funding of human embryonic stem cell research. He should do so through an executive order or presidential memorandum.

This directive should give HHS and NIH officials 90 days to craft and implement federal guidance or regulations that will allow federal funding of research on ethically derived human embryonic stem cells, irrespective of the date the cell lines were derived, with certain restrictions. At a minimum, those restrictions should include the following:

  • The cells must have been derived from embryos produced for reproductive purposes.
  • Those embryos must have been deemed in excess of medical need, were no longer being considered for transfer to a womb ,and were slated for destruction.
  • The embryos were freely donated by both of the adults who contributed genetic material to create them, as evidenced by proper written informed consent.
  • No financial inducements were offered to donors, and the donors expressed through an informed consent process their understanding that any resulting cell lines will be used for research and not for the development of therapeutic benefits for the donors.
  • All federally funded research on human embryonic stem cells must be conducted under the review of a Stem Cell Research Oversight committee that adheres to the standards put forth in the guidelines of either the National Academies or the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

The Obama administration should make clear that under the new policy, federal funds cannot be used to create, harm, or destroy human embryos. This will ensure the new policy does not violate the terms of the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment, which has been included in annual HHS appropriations bills since 1996 and prohibits the use of federal funds for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” Federal funds could be used only for research on embryonic stem cell lines that have been derived with non-federal funds, and not for the actual derivation of the lines. Hundreds of such lines reportedly exist today, derived ethically with independent financing, but are currently off limits to federally funded researchers.

The president also should direct HHS and NIH to include in the new policy an analysis of how best to decide the ongoing federal funding eligibility for research on the 21 stem cell lines already approved under the Bush policy. The Center for American Progress recommends that HHS and NIH use its authority to “grandfather” those lines for ongoing funding, subject to case-by-case approval of individual research protocols by the Stem Cell Research Oversight committees at the research institutions where such work will be done.

The Center also calls upon the incoming 111th Congress to pass legislation codifying the HHS/NIH approach so that future presidents cannot unilaterally obstruct this research. Congress should pass that legislation apart from other issues it may want to address in the area of stem cell and cloning research. The legislation should provide broad, principled, ethical standards so that the science can evolve in the direction that experimentation and evidence takes it—subject always to policy details promulgated by HHS/NIH.

The legislation should charge HHS with the duty to update at regular intervals, such as every two years, its regulations for embryonic stem cell research in light of new science. Together with our new president’s swift action, these legislative policy guidelines will ensure that human embryonic stem cell research is carried out with the highest scientific and ethical standards. That in turn will ensure U.S. moral and technological leadership in a humanitarian arena crucial to our nation’s biomedical preeminence, future economic competitiveness, and progressive ideals.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress. To read more about the Center’s analysis and policy positions on stem cells please go to the Bioethics and Science page of our website and to Science Progress.