President Barack Obama plans to lift key restrictions Monday on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, reversing one of the most-debated domestic policies of his predecessor, according to administration sources.
The move has been widely anticipated by scientists and patient-advocacy groups who chafed at President George W. Bush's 2001 decision to bar federal funding for research on nearly all human embryonic stem cells.
Under the Bush policy, a limited set of embryonic stem cells created before August 2001 could be used in federally funded experiments.
But many scientists said that policy placed significant constraints on research aimed at producing cures for disease. Embryonic stem cells can grow into nearly any type of tissue in the body, and scientists are hoping to learn how to mold them into heart cells for cardiac patients, pancreas cells for diabetics and replacement brain cells for people with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.
In changing the policy, Obama might further anger social conservatives who believe that the research is immoral because human embryos are destroyed in the course of obtaining stem cells.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said federal funding should be directed to research on other kinds of stem cells not derived from embryos.
"The question is whether taxpayer dollars should be used to subsidize the destruction of precious human life," Boehner said in a statement yesterday. "Millions of Americans strongly oppose that, and rightfully so. Taxpayer dollars should not aid the destruction of innocent human life."
One official said the president would emphasize "a return to sound science," a theme that Obama and other Democratic candidates emphasized often during last year's presidential campaign.
Eight years ago, Bush cast the restrictions as a compromise that would allow scientific research to continue "without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos."
The restrictions became increasingly vexing for many scientists, who contended that the limits had slowed the pace of research. "It was such a disaster," said Julie Baker, a stem cell researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Reversing the policy would give federally funded scientists access to hundreds of newer stem cells that are free of the chromosomal abnormalities and animal molecules present in the so-called presidential cell lines, rendering them essentially useless as potential medical therapies.