New Stem Cell Guidelines Disappoint Both Scientists and Religious Conservatives

Some scientists say the decision was political.


By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

In issuing draft guidelines on federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research Friday, the National Institutes of Health let down a lot of scientists and patient advocates. That's because the guidelines limited funding to embryos that were left over from in vitro fertilization clinics and were already earmarked for destruction.

Announcing his executive order on embryonic stem cell research last month, President Obama conspicuously left the door open to funding research using stem cells derived through embryos created expressly for scientific research or through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, popularly known as therapeutic cloning. But the draft NIH guidelines explicitly outlaw federal dollars for stem cells derived through either of those methods.

"I am really, really startled," Susan L. Solomon, chief executive of the private New York Stem Cell Foundation, told the Washington Post after the NIH rules were issued. "This seems to be a political calculus when what we want in this country is a scientific research calculus." The Post quoted a second, unnamed scientist who was present when Obama signed the stem cell executive order last month. That soure said Friday's news was "much more political than we thought it would be. This is extremely limiting."

But conservative religious groups are hardly cheering. The most effusive praise I've heard from the right comes from Robby George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton: "It is possible that the restraint shown thus far by the NIH is in part the result of pro-life lobbying efforts, including efforts by pro-life supporters of President Obama. If so, all who have assisted in these efforts, including Obama's pro-life supporters, deserve recognition and thanks. We can pause only for a moment, however."

Many other conservative groups, including the Family Research Council and Americans United for Life, have been silent so far about the NIH action. I would hardly expect those groups to endorse the NIH guidelines—religious conservatives see all embryo destruction as murder and as the commoditization of human life, even if those embryos would be discarded anyway—but I did expect more celebrating over getting the best they could have hoped for from Obama on stem cells, and certainly more than they expected.

It was a only few short weeks ago, after all, that social conservatives were alleging that Obama left the door open to human cloning.

Far from cheering the NIH rules, the National Right to Life Committee discerns an Obama/Democratic Party conspiracy aimed at fooling the American people into funding the creation of embryos for research and human cloning with their tax dollars. Many on the left will say that religious conservatives' refusal to praise Obama betrays a partisan agenda. Religious conservatives will say there's a clear right and wrong on an issue as fundamental as human life and that compromise in this area is impossible.

The one place where praise for the NIH move has been forthcoming is from the religious center, as represented in this instance by Faith in Public Life. The group has assembled a list of endorsements from prominent religious figures, including social conservatives like Joel Hunter, Doug Kmiec, and Samuel Rodriguez.

  • Take our poll: Do you approve of Obama lifting restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research?
  • Follow Dan Gilgoff on Twitter.
  • Read more about religion.