President Obama's reversal of the Bush embryonic stem cell order has spurred an ethically chagrined cacophony from numerous op-eds, cable news commentators and politicians. The common thread in this slew has been a Pandora prophesy, of sorts, whereby it's believed that American society will be sundered to an unrecognizable degree by state-endorsed ethical laxity. However, what detractors fail to acknowledge in their state of alarmist paranoia is that federal funding for more embryonic cell lines means, not weaker, but stronger and more coherent ethical controls, by encouraging a more centralized framework for oversight.
The Bush order withheld federal funding for all embryonic stem cell lines created after 9:00 p.m. on August 9, 2001. It did not prohibit the privately funded use of embryonic lines. Knocking down the arbitrary wall constructed by Bush will most likely subject far more labs who are obliged to reap the benefits of federal funding to a federal ethics oversight regime. In years past, private labs have of course been subject to rules governing ethics, but the prospects for enforcement will increase substantially under a central overseer.
Moreover, Obama's March 9 order represents only an initial step. The administration's overall stem cell research policy going forward is still very much in an inchoate phase. According to the order [PDF]:
Sec. 3. Guidance. Within 120 days from the date of this order, the Secretary, through the Director of NIH, shall review existing NIH guidance and other widely recognized guidelines on human stem cell research, including provisions establishing appropriate safeguards, and issue new NIH guidance on such research that is consistent with this order. The Secretary, through NIH, shall review and update such guidance periodically, as appropriate
One wonders if the alarmist opposition has even bothered to read the language of the order. Charles Krauthammer, for example (and to be fair, he is not alone), wrote in the Washington Post: "While I favor moving that moral line to additionally permit the use of spare fertility clinic embryos, President Obama replaced it with no line at all. He pointedly left open the creation of cloned -- and noncloned sperm-and-egg-derived -- human embryos solely for the purpose of dismemberment and use for parts."
Really? The order clearly states that such details are to be hashed out in the next 120 days by medical professionals at the NIH, making this statement grossly premature, inaccurate and, indeed, irresponsible. To suggest that the new order will lead to farms of human homunculi -- to be harvested freely for parts in some Wachowski brothers dystopian future -- is completely and utterly absurd. Even if Obama's stated intent was to categorically do away with ethics and morality altogether (which it most certainly isn't), reversing Bush's 2001 (and 2007) order still would not have the nightmarish ramifications that are being peddled.
To account for the failure rate, it is standard for fertility clinics to create more than one embryo. Consequently, there are usually leftovers, which can either be pointlessly destroyed or, preferably, willfully donated to the medical research industry. Even the Bush policy acknowledged this:
On August 9th, 2001, Former President George W. Bush announced that federal funds may be awarded for research using human embryonic stem cells if the following criteria are met:
• The derivation process (which begins with the destruction of the embryo) was initiated prior to 9:00 P.M. EDT on August 9, 2001.
• The stem cells must have been derived from an embryo that was created for reproductive purposes and was no longer needed.
• Informed consent must have been obtained for the donation of the embryo and that donation must not have involved financial inducements.
There is no reason to think that the NIH, when it completes its review, will not maintain these ethical standards. Why cynically predict that a non-ideological, non-partisan governmental entity will throw out all past ethical standards? Such a position is completely unfounded and amounts to nothing more than puerile fear-mongering. Until the policy is fully formed, this segment of the commentariat -- during their tired ideological temper tantrums -- would do well to stick to the facts when issuing apocalyptic predictions.