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Executive action needed on stem cells—A Commentary by Sam Berger ’10

The following commentary was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 26, 2008.

Executive action needed on stem cells
By Sam Berger ’10

In the wake of President-elect Barack Obama's victory, his advisers are considering how he can use his executive power to change the current administration's policies. One of the first steps they have suggested is eliminating the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. While it's past time to fully support stem cell science, the research should be protected by legislation, not just an executive order.

On its face, there is little reason for President Obama not to act unilaterally. He can eliminate the restrictions without Congress, as they stem from an executive order and not law. And the need to reverse the policy quickly is evident, as the science has already been slowed enough.

But there are practical and symbolic reasons that suggest Congress should pass legislation lifting the restrictions, regardless of what the new president does.

The most important reason for legislation is that it provides more stable protection than an executive order. Just as President Obama will be able to lift the restrictions in the absence of legislation, the next president could easily re-establish them, or even new undesirable regulations, and stave off congressional action through the veto. We saw this all too clearly over the last few years, as bipartisan majorities in Congress twice failed to overcome President Bush's vetoes of stem cell legislation.

Continued protection is particularly important for science, where success depends on long-term funding and commitment. Research takes time, and interrupted funding streams or changing federal policies will slow progress and discourage innovative work.

Long-term protection for the research is also necessary to attract the best and brightest to the field. Young scientists will not enter a research area they think may be criminalized or starved of money, and established scientists will be less likely to pursue research as well. While there is tremendous excitement in the scientific community about the potential of stem cells, uncertainty about federal support has led some researchers to go overseas and many young scientists to choose other areas of study.

Similar concerns have been felt at the state level, where states without research protections have lost scientists to those that do. These concerns, coupled with the promise of the science, have helped pass ballot measures to protect stem cell research in Missouri and Michigan in the last two elections.

The second reason for Congress to pass legislation is the signal it would send regarding bipartisanship, Washington's new mantra after years of intense polarization.

Both Republican and Democratic Congresses passed stem cell legislation, only to see President Bush veto the bills despite overwhelming support for the research from the American people. Passing this legislation and having President Obama sign it into law would signal the new direction the voters of this country has chosen, one that encourages reaching across the aisle to realize the promise of the future.

None of this is to suggest President Obama shouldn't lift the restrictions right away. With the country in the midst of a financial crisis that shows little sign of lessening and the auspicious programs he has outlined to reform health care, energy policy and our tax code, it might be some time before Congress has the chance to address stem cell research, time in which scientists could be using federal dollars to advance the field.

But regardless of what President Obama does, Congress should engage in a little bipartisanship and pass legislation this term protecting embryonic stem cell research. The scientific promise and lifesaving potential of stem cells are too great to be left up to future presidential whim.

Sam Berger worked on stem cell policy at the Center for American Progress. He is pursuing a J.D. at Yale Law School.