On Monday I had the honor of being in the East Room when President Obama signed the executive order reversing former President Bush's stem cell research restrictions. What an experience to witness history! The mood in the room was buoyant. Scientists and advocates watched with huge smiles and even a little disbelief that this day had finally come. Nearly eight years of delay ended with the swish of a pen.
I couldn't stop thinking of how much I wish every American could be in the room. I was in row five or six, I think, 10 or 12 feet from the President as he articulated for the American public, and the world at large, issues so many of us have lived with and fought for in the past eight years. He spoke about the need to listen to scientists and respect their viewpoints, as well as data. He decried the fact that this became such a wedge issue -- as if stem cell research is somehow the amoral choice even though it may enable us to care for each other better. He articulated both sides, but he was clear that mistakes had been made with the Bush policy and that progress had suffered. He then talked more about the importance of the United States' once again asserting itself as the world leader in science and innovation. It was, as I've come to expect from President Obama, a straightforward, crisp, coherent and compelling articulation of the considerations that informed his decision.
In my role as CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation, I spend a lot of time thinking about stem cells, because our Foundation believes that they are one promising avenue toward better treatments and a cure for Parkinson's disease. The truth -- as President Obama acknowledged -- is that, for PD and for every other disease that may eventually be treated with stem cells, we don't yet know what the future holds. This week's executive order is about getting back on track with the research process, which (lamentably) is almost never a speedy one. Researchers now have expanded latitude to explore stem cells' potential and see whether the most promising leads may actually represent therapeutic possibilities that can help the millions of Americans and their families living with illness or injury.
But while the news Monday was about stem cells, in truth this Executive Order is also about something more. It is about believing in science as an expression of hope and optimism, rather than reducing it to malicious intentions or immorality. It's about trusting that the scientific community -- the majority of whom, I believe, were drawn to research out of a desire to help humanity -- will be responsible and ethical in their actions. This moment is about reigniting the engine of innovation that has been a hallmark of the American spirit for as long as there have been Americans. It is about asserting American leadership -- a combination of intelligence, spirit, and ethics -- in science. Overall, it is a vote for reinvestment in the research that can lead to new therapies and cures for so many.
Unfortunately, Michael J. Fox couldn't be in the East Room on Monday, as he's out of the country filming a documentary. I think it's fair to say that no one is more acutely aware than Michael that the stem cell debate has always been about something much bigger than just stem cells. Speaking for him (and I hope he won't mind), the stem cell issue is about research freedom, ensuring that our nation's brightest and most gifted scientific minds leave no promising path unexplored as they work to drive new discoveries that can help all of us. That they now no longer will have to, in the stem cell arena at least, is a very, very good thing.
Thank you, Mr. President.