Obama’s surprisingly centrist rules on stem cells

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By Jeremy Manier

Last Friday the Obama administration published its new guidelines for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, ending the Bush-era restrictions on that work.

Except they didn’t end all of the restrictions. The new rules do not allow for work on cells made via research cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer), and they require an informed consent process that may exclude some cell lines already derived with different consent procedures. Advocates at both antipodes of the stem-cell debate found something to criticize in the Obama rules. Researcher Irv Weissman of Stanford said the rules maintain an “ideological barrier” that will hinder progress, while Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said the guidelines herald “an incremental strategy to desensitize the public to the concept of killing human embryos for research purposes.”

For now Obama seems to have struck an ideological balance, and some conservatives are giving him credit for it. Yuval Levin, a former Bush bioethics adviser who recently appeared on this blog, wrote on Friday that the new guidelines “certainly could have been worse” from a conservative’s perspective.

At the same time, the new rules mean that federally funded research can move beyond 2001-era technology. Bush’s guidelines, which restricted funds to lines derived before August 2001, allowed researchers to work with just 21 cell lines. Obama’s rules open the door to hundreds of additional lines created since 2001, many of them with genetic defects that can help scientists understand how diseases develop.

In moral terms this may even be a clearer approach than Bush’s policy, which claimed to protect nascent life but did allow some funding of research that required the destruction of human embryos. Those rules allowed fewer stem-cell lines to qualify for funding, yet the restriction was based on an arbitrary cut-off date. Why was it moral to allow funding of research on stem cells taken before August 8, 2001, but beyond the pale to allow funds for cells taken after that date?

Levin, who also served as executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote that by keeping some limits on stem-cell research funding, Obama’s NIH has conceded “that the destruction of embryos for research is not an innocent and unproblematic practice, but must be constrained for ethical reasons.” So far, so good. As the bioethicist Art Caplan once told me in an interview, “A human embryo may not be a legally protected person, but it’s also not just any old stuff.” Levin then goes further: “These rules raise the question of why limits are necessary, and any serious answer to that question would lead us to conclude that these rules are inadequate. ”

That’s not at all clear to me. Under Bush’s old rules, an embryo’s fate might depend solely on the date when it was created. Under Obama’s new rules, the embryo’s fate is governed by something far less arbitrary – the parents’ intentions, informed by all the options available to them. It seems reasonable to trust that whatever parents decide, they will see their embryos as something more than raw material.

[Note: This post originally contained a quotation from a private classroom setting, which has been removed at the speaker’s request.]

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