CQ HealthBeat News
Feb. 19, 2009 – 2:48 p.m.
Castle Urges Obama to ‘Act Now’ on Stem Cell Ban
By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor
House members who were hoping that President Obama would lift a Bush administration executive order limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in his first few days in office are politely stepping up the pressure on the White House to act, with Rep. Michael N. Castle , R-Del., weighing in with a letter urging the president to revoke the order “immediately.”
The letter from Castle and five other House Republicans on the whip team that rallied support for legislation in the 110th Congress lifting the funding curb said that “while we have been encouraged by recent news reports that you plan to issue an Executive Order soon, we cannot stress enough the importance of swift action.”
The letter noted that embryonic stem cell research “holds great promise for alleviating the suffering of the more than 100 million American patients who are living with devastating diseases,” including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes.
Castle previously joined Rep. Diana DeGette , D-Colo., and nine other Democratic and Republican House members in a Dec. 19 letter to Obama urging that he act quickly after taking office and that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) be charged with creating guidelines for carrying out research using embryonic stem cells, which involve the destruction of human embryos. A Castle aide said of the new letter, “We just wanted the president to know that he had Republican support.”
Obama’s inaction so far on the Bush executive order, which limited federal funding to research on cell lines derived from embryos destroyed before Aug. 9, 2001, has raised some eyebrows in the medical research community. But the Castle aide said, “I assume that he’s busy. We doubt that he’s holding it up for political reasons. We just want him to know that he has Republican support, be it small.”
Kristofer Eisenla, a spokesman for DeGette, said the Colorado lawmaker spoke to Obama Tuesday about the matter when he visited Denver. “Obama said, ‘we’re working on it,’ ” Eisenla recounted. “We’re waiting, but we understand that the president is in the midst of an economic crisis,” Eisenla added.
The DeGette spokesman added that “the congresswoman is grateful that the Republicans are echoing her personal request to the president” to lift the order.
Legislation championed by DeGette and Castle in the 110th Congress to lift the executive order made it twice to President Bush for his signature, but Bush wielded his veto pen instead. The legislation would have allowed federally-funded studies on cell lines developed from human embryos discarded by in vitro fertilization clinics, not just on the pre-Aug. 9, 2001 cell lines.
On Feb. 4, DeGette along with Castle again introduced a bill (HR 873) lifting Bush’s restrictions and codifying the new policy and a second bill (HR 872) not only lifting the restrictions but also crafting an ethical framework for all stem cell research, among other provisions.
Obama could issue an executive order lifting the restriction and authorize research on all embryonic stem cell lines, as long as the cells are “ethically derived.” Outlined in a recent policy paper from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, that approach would dramatically expand the research eligible for federal grants.
But some patient advocates and research institutions prefer more separation between politics and science.
The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research has been urging Obama to simply rescind the Bush policy, a move that by implication would leave it to the NIH to issue guidelines for the field. Coalition President Amy Comstock Rick said that policy making should be put in the hands of scientists and bioethicists. If Obama is too prescriptive in the way he revises Bush’s policy, a future president might be more likely to revise Obama’s policy.
A White House spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Obama told congressional Democrats at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., two weeks ago that he was delaying a stem cell announcement to make it in sync with stem cell bills in the House or Senate or both. His executive order would nullify Bush’s policy, and the legislation would immediately codify a new policy.