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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 14.1 (2004) 97-114

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Stem Cell Research in the U.S. after the President's Speech of August 2001

Cynthia B. Cohen

On 9 August 2001, in a nationally televised speech, President Bush addressed the contentious question of whether to provide federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research (White House 2001).1 This research involves taking the primordial cells found in embryos and transforming them into certain specialized cells, such as those of the heart, nerves, and muscles, with the ultimate goal of transferring these cells into patients to repair damaged cells and tissues. In his remarks, the President authorized funding for research only on stem cells already harvested from remaining embryos at in vitro fertilization (IVF) centers as of 9 August 2001, the date of the speech. In a "Fact Sheet" about embryonic stem cell research, he added the ethical requirements that (1) the donors of embryos gave informed consent to the derivation of stem cells from their embryos, (2) the embryos were created solely for reproductive purposes, and (3) no financial inducements were given to the embryo donors. The President also prohibited federally funded research on embryonic stem cells derived from embryos after 9 August 2001, as well as the creation of embryos for research purposes and the cloning of human embryos for both reproductive and research purposes. He did not seek to ban the pursuit of embryonic stem cell research with private funds. "This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of embryos," the President stated (White House 2001).

The President's speech stirred intense controversy. Many applauded the new policy because it allowed some embryonic stem cell research to proceed, thereby raising hope that treatments might be developed for those suffering from such conditions as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and diabetes. Others supported it on grounds that it would discourage the future destruction of embryos in stem cell research. They maintained that although it was wrong to have derived stem cells from embryos, this wrong was no longer remediable and it therefore was justifiable to allow research using such embryos to proceed. Some, however, objected to the new policy because they held that it unduly limited the [End Page 97] number of embryonic stem cells available for federally funded research. Still others opposed it on grounds that it made the federal government complicit in what they took to be the wrongful destruction of human embryos that had taken place prior to 9 August 2001. The President established the President's Council on Bioethics by executive order in November 2001 and charged it, among other tasks, with monitoring stem cell research and recommending guidelines and regulations for biomedical innovations.

Questions about the moral status of human embryos have so captured public attention since the President issued his remarks that other significant ethical and policy issues raised about stem cell research inside the Beltway have remained in the shadows. A number of individuals and organizations—legislators, scientists, patient groups, the President's Council on Bioethics, ethicists, religious task forces, and social commentators—have attempted to bring these other issues to legislative and public attention. They also have revisited the more publicly prominent question of what sorts of protections we owe to human embryos. In response, Congress has attempted to address several of these newly emerging issues at hearings and in legislation. I review these efforts, consider developing issues and arguments, and conclude by exploring possible future directions for federal and private sector stem cell policy.

The Availability of Embryonic Stem Cell Lines to Federally Funded Researchers

President Bush, in developing his stem cell research policy, accepted a distinction between the "derivation" and the "use" of embryos enunciated by the General Counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services toward the end of the Clinton administration. This distinction was adopted to avoid contravening the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (added...


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