(AP) - President Barack Obama said Monday he is allowing federal taxpayer dollars to fund significantly broader research on embryonic stem cells because "medical miracles do not happen simply by accident," and promised his administration would make up for the ground lost under his predecessor.
Fulfilling a campaign promise, Obama signed an executive order expected to set in motion increased research that supporters believe could uncover cures for serious ailments from diabetes to paralysis.
Obama's action, before a packed East Room audience, reverses former President George W. Bush's policy on stem cell research by undoing a 2001 directive that banned federal funding for research into stem lines created after that date.
Bush limited the use of taxpayer money to only the 21 stem cell lines that had been produced before his decision. He argued he was defending human life because days-old embryos - although typically from fertility clinics and already destined for destruction - are destroyed to create the stem cell lines.
The Obama order reverses that without addressing a separate legislative ban, which precludes any federal money paying for the development of stem cell lines. The legislation, however, does not prevent funds for research on those lines created without federal funding.
“Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident.”President Barack Obama
Researchers say the newer lines created with private money during the period of the Bush ban are healthier and better suited to creating treatment for diseases.
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases - such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson's disease or maybe even Alzheimer's, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
Obama called his decision a "difficult and delicate balance," an understatement of the intense emotions generated on both sides of the long, contentious debate.
He said he came down on the side of the "majority of Americans" who support increased federal funding for the research, both because strict oversight would prevent problems and because of the great and lifesaving potential it holds.
"Rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama said.
"In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."
Obama warned against overstating the eventual benefits of the research. But he said his administration "will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research," taking a slap at his predecessor in the process.
"I cannot guarantee that we will find the treatments and cures we seek. No president can promise that. But I can promise that we will seek them actively, responsibly, and with the urgency required to make up for lost ground."
It's a matter of competitive advantage globally as well, the president argued.
"When government fails to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives," Obama said.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the White House should focus on the economy instead.
"Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs," he said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "We don't want that. ... And certainly that is something that we ought to be talking about, but let's take care of business first. People are out of jobs."
The president was insistent that his order would not open the door to human cloning.
"We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse," Obama said. "And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society."
Obama also issued a memo promising to restore "scientific integrity to government decision-making." That policy change was aimed more broadly than the stem cell debate, to reach into areas such as climate change as well.
"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources it is also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said. "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."
Obama said the presidential memorandum was the beginning of a process that would ensure that his administration: bases its decision "on the soundest science," appoints scientific advisers based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology, and is "open and honest" about the science behind its decisions.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)