Weekly Pulse: Why the Stem Cell Reversal Is Not a Total Victory

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

This week, President Obama made headlines by reversing George W. Bush's executive order barring researchers who receive federal funds from researching all but a handful of stem cell lines created before 2001.

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama wrote. "It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."


In The Nation, John Nichols applauds Obama's restoration of science to its proper place in policy-making.  And Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly points out that, right on cue, the conservative Family Research Council has started disingenuously claiming that Obama's reversal opens the door for human cloning.

However, as Emily Douglas of RH Reality explains, the full implications of the reversal are more complicated than you might suppose: Obama lifted Bush-era restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell (ESC) researchers. However, researchers are still barred from using federal funds to create or modify human embryos, due to a legislative provision known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, enacted by Congress in 1996.

In 2001, Bush extended the funding ban to apply to human embryonic stem cells, which are are not themselves embryos. These stem cells are the descendants of cells that were harvested from embryos. Under the Bush rules, all but 21 lines of stem cells created before 2001 were off-limits to researchers receiving federal funds. The ban meant that if a lab stepped outside the stem cell rules, it would render itself ineligible for federal biomedical research money for any research it did, not just stem cell-related program activities. Being disqualified for federal grant money is effectively a death sentence for university labs.

Thanks to the Bush's order, the advancement of ESC science has been sharply limited by the fact that only a handful of cell lines could be studied. Frequently, the first step in a new research program is to custom engineer a new line of cells to test the key hypothesis.

Now that Obama has reversed Bush's executive order, scientists will be allowed to study stem cells from any lineage, including newly created lines, without jeopardizing their federal funding. But where will these new lines of stem cells come from? Unless Congress repeals Dickey-Wicker, labs that accept government funding will still be barred from making their own new stem cell lines because human embryonic stem cells are made from embryos.

The president does not have the authority to singlehandedly overturn Dickey-Wicker, only Congress can do that. However, Obama's move may have emboldened pro-science Democrats to write Dickey-Wicker out of the next HHS appropriations bill.

In other healthcare news, Ezra Klein at the American Prospect notes with some amusement that increasing numbers of Republicans are embracing "universal coverage" as a buzzword. To Republicans, it means the goal of private insurance for everyone vs. the Obama administration's vision of a public insurance option coexisting with private insurance. Klein reports that the top Senate Republicans with jurisdiction over health reform sent a letter to President Obama this week warning him not to try to sneak healthcare reform through the budget reconciliation process and warning him against a public insurance alternative. As we've discussed in previous editions of the Weekly Pulse, Republicans and their allies in the insurance industry like the idea of providing health insurance for everyone, even mandatory insurance for everyone, just as long as the insurance industry is empowered to sell it all.

In a similar vein, economist Dean Baker asks in AlterNet whether the government is more committed to protecting healthcare or health insurance industry profits.

This week, Ezra Klein also scored an exclusive interview with Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU). Check the Prospect to find out what the head of America's largest union thinks about healthcare reform.

As your healthcare blogger, I'm very pleased to announce the presence of two outstanding progressive sex advice columnists, Prof. Foxy of feministing.com and Heather Corinna of RH Reality Check. New feministing contributor "Professor Foxy" debuted her first column, which could have been titled "The Lord helps those who help themselves," but was actually called, "Working things out in Florida." Therein, Prof. Foxy counselled a newly married woman who dutifully practiced abstinence until marriage, only to find that married sex wasn't as magically blissful as the abstinence-only crowd had led her to believe. Foxy had some practical tips to help the couple shed their inhibitions and build a mutually satisfying physical relationship. This week, Dr. Foxy advises a feminist who is trying to cope with the sudden revelation that her boyfriend of five years enjoys dressing in women's clothing.

 

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care. Visit Healthcare.NewsLadder.net for a complete list of articles on healthcare affordability, healthcare laws, and healthcare controversy.


And for the best progressive reporting on the ECONOMY, and IMMIGRATION, check out, Immigration.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net. 

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

 

Tags: Abstinence, Andy Stern, Barack Obama, dickey-wicker, embryos, Family Research Council, federal funds, George Bush, health insurance, Healthcare NewsLadder, human cloning, Newsladder, Republicans, restoration of science, SEIU, stem cell reversal, Universal Coverage (all tags)

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