You might have thought that President Obama's recent order earlier this month, lifting restrictions on federally funded stem cell research, would render obsolete the opinions of a Bush-appointed council tasked with advising the former chief executive on stem cells and other hot-button bioethics issues.
Ten members of The President's Council on Bioethics, an 18-member bioethics advisory panel appointed by President Bush but still active until the end of September 2009, wrote in the Hastings Center's Bioethics Forum blog that Obama's description of his March 9 executive order as "lift[ing] the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research" was an inaccurate characterization of Bush's restrictions, which limited federally funded stem cell research to cell lines created before August 9, 2001.
Echoing conservative talking points of the past several years, Bush's policy "did not ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research; rather, for the first time, it provided and endorsed such funding (as long as the stem cell lines had been derived prior to that date)," the council members wrote.
In Wednesday's post, the panelists wrote that they are expressing their own views and not those of the 18-member council itself, which was charged in 2001 with studying emerging technologies and their ethical implications.
The bioethics council's term expires September 30, according to an executive order signed by Bush two years ago. The council's spokesperson, Diane Gianelli, said she wasn't aware of any members planning to step down before then.
Obama does not have a bioethics council, but he appointed a chief science advisor, John Holdren, and has other scientists advising him on science policy issues. The White House didn't have any details today about whether he'll ultimately set up his own bioethics panel, as presidents have in some form since 1974.
Tom Murray, president of The Hastings Center and a member of the Clinton administration's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, tells ScientificAmerican.com that he expects Obama to dissolve Bush's council or allow it to lapse. "This is their opportunity to get a last shot at the new president," Murray said of the commentary, adding that it would have "probably little or no effect" on Obama's ability to carry out his stem cell platform. "They are taking a proactive strike, directed at trying to influence NIH [National Institutes of Health] rather than having any substantive content about what the president said," Murray said.
"We certainly respect that there are differing viewpoints and this is in some respects a difficult issue," an Obama administration official tells ScientificAmerican.com. "The authors of this blog post were selected by the previous administration based on their set views on this issue and obviously we have a very different view on whether stem cell research deserves more of an investment. NIH is going to be producing guidelines that ensure that stem cell research proceeds ethically and responsibly and the president made clear when he announced that this was a top priority for him."
In his order reversing Bush's policy, Obama gave the NIH 120 days to decide what kind of embryonic stem cell research it would fund. He didn't say where those embryos should come from, and whether federally funded studies should include research on embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.
The council members who signed the commentary also say that "the president's announced policy would permit federal funding of research not only on stem cell lines derived from "spare" IVF (in vitro fertilization( embryos but also on lines derived from created and/or cloned embryos." Obama's order, however, cannot ignore the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, which outlawed the use of federally funded studies "in which human embryos are created, destroyed, discarded, or knowingly be subjected to risk of injury or death greater than allowed for research on fetuses in utero." Obama has no plans to take a position on whether Congress should overturn Dickey-Wicker.
Asked why The Hastings Center published the council members' comments, Murray said: "They have a right to try to make their case. That's why when they submitted it, we accepted it. I expect others to respond to the criticism of the president's policy."