"We could do today what we couldn't do yesterday," stated George Daley, a researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston, in response to yesterday's clearance from the Obama administration for scientists to begin using new lines of human embryonic stem cells in federally funded experiments.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has approved approximately $21 million for stem-cell research. But the actual distribution of the money is contingent on government approval – so scientists have been waiting, and waiting and waiting.
During the George W. Bush era, the use of embryonic stem cells was severely limited by the administration's religiously grounded moral objections to the extraction process. While Congress twice decided to move forward with legislation that would allow stem-cell researchers to do their jobs, twice President Bush vetoed their efforts.
For years, scientists were limited to studying only 21 existing cell lines, which according to Washington Post Staff Writer Rob Stein, "many criticized as flawed and inadequate."
With the election of President Barack Obama, however, Dr. Thomas Okarma of the Geron Corporation predicted that change was coming to the medical community.
"It will happen soon," he said, "and it would have happened sooner if it weren't for the ridiculous Bush policies."
He was right.
The NIH on Wednesday authorized the first 13 lines of cells to be used for research purposes, most likely releasing another 20 lines to the scientific community tomorrow.
According to the Post, there are over 300 cell lines still awaiting approval.
"This is the first step toward widely expanded access to hundreds of lines that have been derived since the initial Bush policy of 2001," said Daley, "We've been waiting with bated breath to get started."
However, with this new scientific development, there has been backlash from the Religious Right and the Catholic bishops, both staunchly opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells in laboratories and hospital rooms.
David Prentice, a senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, described these new approvals as "unfortunate."
The Catholic hierarchy took a similar stand.
"Ethically, we don't think any taxpayer should have to fund research that relies on destroying early human life at any stage," said Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Religious Right's opposition to embryonic stem-cell research has been long standing. James Dobson, in a 2005 broadcast of his Focus on the Family radio show, even likened stem-cell research to Nazi experiments during the Holocaust.
Despite this strictly dogmatic opposition from the Religious Right and its allies, however, our government must continue to advance our society -- medically, intellectually, politically and economically. We must not kow-tow to sectarian pressure groups who want to base our policies on their version of biblical law.
We applaud the Obama administration for taking this important step.
We echo the sentiment of Francis Collins, the current director of the NIH (and himself an evangelical Christian): "This is an opportunity to celebrate the science that can now go forward, [ending] what has clearly been a time of some frustration on the part of the research community."