Embryo research during President George W. Bush’s administration (2001-2009)

When George W. Bush took office, many members of Congress were not pleased with what they viewed as a legalistic end-run around conservative policies (Fischbach and Fischbach, 2004).

President George W. Bush adopted a more conservative variation of Harriet Rabb’s approach. In his first public address regarding a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) policy, he announced that human ESC research would be allowed to go forward, but only on stem cell lines derived prior to August 9, 2001, the date of his address (Bush 2001). This approach was remarkable, seeming to favor hESC research while at the same time limiting it.

The policy proved to be more restrictive than it initially seemed. While between 60 and 70 lines had been previously derived and were available for use, over the duration of President Bush’s two terms in office, only 21 lines proved viable, greatly reducing access to the basic material needed to conduct stem cell research.

In 2006, in an effort to overturn the funding ban, the Senate passed a bill allowing funding of research on lines derived after 2001, but President Bush vetoed the bill. He vetoed a similar bill the following year in 2007.

While the restriction of federal funding for hESC funding served to limit embryo research because the blastocyst must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells, embryo research actively continued with private and certain state funding (e.g., California). Moreover, despite its intent to limit research, the restriction served as an impetus for researchers to focus their efforts on novel ways to create stem cells using adult cells that did not require destruction of the embryo (Loike and Fischbach 2009).

The restrictions on stem cell research also resulted in many scientists changing research direction or going abroad to be able to continue their work. Some states like California and New York allocated substantial state and private funds in order to provide strong opportunities for scientists and to establish their state’s leadership in stem cell science.

The development of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, as well as the use of adult stem cell sources such as cord blood, amniotic fluid, adipose tissue, and bone marrow have led to promising developments. Scientists have been able to do with adult stem cells many of the things they might have done with embryonic stem cells, while avoiding the controversial and divisive destruction of human embryos.

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