USA Today uncritically reported that President Bush "has pointed out that he is the first president" to provide federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Similarly, Glenn Beck stated that "[i]t was George Bush who opened the doors for federal funding [for stem cell research]. He was the first president to fund it," and that "Bill Clinton in 1995 opposed" research on embryos. In fact, the Clinton administration proposed federal funding and, later, drafted guidelines to fund embryonic stem cell research, but those rules had yet to take effect when he left office.
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In a July 20 article by reporters Richard Benedetto and Andrea Stone, USA Today uncritically reported that President Bush "has pointed out that he is the first president" to provide federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Similarly, on the July 19 edition of his CNN Headline News program, Glenn Beck stated that "[i]t was George Bush who opened the doors for federal funding [for stem cell research]. He was the first president to fund it." Beck also asserted that former President Bill Clinton "in 1995 opposed" research on embryos. In fact, after Congress passed a bill that included a provision that allowed federal funding on human embryo research, the Clinton administration convened a panel that proposed federal funding for obtaining stem cells, which would entail the destruction of spare embryos from fertility clinics. It was the Republican-controlled Congress that, in 1995, included a ban on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research in an omnibus appropriations bill, derailing the Clinton administration proposals. The Clinton administration drafted guidelines to fund embryonic stem cell research consistent with the law, but those rules had yet to take effect when he left office. Those rules were suspended by the Bush administration in favor of its own, stricter set of rules.
While Congress passed a bill that contained a general ban on research in which human embryos are damaged or destroyed each year beginning in 1996 (the legislation was first proposed in 1995), and Clinton signed the bill each year he was in office, Clinton did not have the ability to separately veto the general ban language, as each year the provision was part of a larger omnibus budget reconciliation bill and/or part of a larger bill funding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Moreover, in criticizing Clinton for "oppos[ing]" stem cell research, Beck also neglected to mention that Clinton pushed for federal funding of such research as the science behind it became more promising, a move that then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush criticized.
The Dispaches weblog, on the website for the PBS program NOVA scienceNow, documented on April 13, 2005, the evolution of federally funded embryonic stem cell research in the mid-1990s and noted Clinton's 1993 effort "to fund human embryo research for the first time":
Recall the political context. In 1993, with something called the National Institutes of Health [NIH] Revitalization Act, Congress and President Clinton gave the NIH direct authority to fund human embryo research for the first time -- ushering in what seemed like a new era. In response, the NIH established a panel of scientists, ethicists, public policy experts, and patients' advocates to consider the moral and ethical issues involved and to determine which types of experiments should be eligible for federal funding. In 1994, this NIH Human Embryo Research Panel made its recommendations -- among them, that the destruction of spare embryos from fertility clinics, with the goal of obtaining stem cells, should receive federal funding. Embryos at the required stage are round balls no bigger than a grain of sand.
President Clinton rejected part of these recommendations and directed the NIH not to allocate funds to experiments that would create new embryos specifically for research. But for the Gingrich-era Congress that took up the matter in 1995, funding any work with human embryos was going too far, and the recommendations created an uproar. Within a year, Congress had banned the use of federal funds for any experiment in which a human embryo is either created or destroyed.
But a breakthrough occurred in November 1998, when scientists discovered that embryonic stem cells could be isolated, and a compromise on federal funding was reached when, according to an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy brief, "[i]n January 1999, HHS concluded that public funds could be used for research on [embryonic stem] cells as long as derivation of the cells -- which results in the destruction of an embryo -- was carried out with private funds. NIH thus began drafting guidelines governing funding for [embryonic stem] cell studies."
The Clinton administration drafted new guidelines in August 2000 through NIH to allow, according to the AAAS, "federally funded research on [embryonic stem] cells derived in the private sector, and providing for stringent oversight of such research." Neither the USA Today article nor Beck noted Clinton's efforts. As The Washington Post reported on August 10, 2001, the day after Bush's nationally televised speech announcing his new stem cell policy, "the new policy will replace guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health a year ago under the Clinton administration that would have allowed the first federal subsidies of human embryo cell research."
The Washington Post further explained that Clinton's 2000 guidelines were a response to this newly emerging field of research in an August 24, 2000, article:
President Clinton strongly endorsed new and controversial guidelines released yesterday by the National Institutes of Health that will allow the first federal funding of human embryo cell research.
Research on human embryonic stem cells, obtained from frozen embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics, offers "potentially staggering benefits," Clinton said at an impromptu news conference yesterday morning as he left the White House.
Clinton acknowledged that some are opposed to the research because embryos cannot survive the retrieval process. But he said it would be wrong not to follow up on the "breathtaking" evidence that the cells can help cure spinal cord injuries and a wide variety of diseases.
"I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives, to help people literally get up and walk, to do all kinds of things we could never have imagined, as long as we meet rigorous, ethical standards," Clinton said.
The stem cell debate also spilled over into the presidential campaign, as Republican nominee George W. Bush made clear his opposition to the administration's guidelines. "The governor opposes federal funding for stem cell research that involves destroying a living human embryo," said campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.
The new guidelines forbid the use of federal funds to destroy human embryos directly, but they permit federal research on stem cells taken from embryos by privately financed researchers. In Bush's view, Sullivan said, that arrangement still amounts to federal support of embryo destruction.
Scientists and patient advocates took issue with that perspective yesterday, and some expressed fear that if elected president, Bush might sign an executive order banning the research.
The Bush administration suspended the draft Clinton administration rules in favor of funding rules that were more restrictive than those proposed by the Clinton administration because it limited the number of stem cell lines available for researchers to those lines already created.
The NOVA scienceNow website characterized Bush's repeated claims to be the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research as "not accurate":
[Bush] has presided over the first flow of federal funds to a promising area of research that relies on destroying human embryos. And yet Bush's repeated claims to be "the first president ever to allow funding" for human embryonic stem cell research (made, for instance, during the second nationally televised presidential debate in fall 2004) are not accurate. Here, he lays claim to a stem cell legacy that isn't his. Truth is, Bush's immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, was a far greater supporter of human embryonic stem cell research.
From the July 20 USA Today article:
Bush staked out his position in August 2001 when he announced a policy to fund research on 78 existing embryonic stem cell lines but banned taxpayer dollars for those created later.
Bush has pointed out that he is the first president to fund such research, now a total of $90 million since 2001.
Criticism for the veto came from prominent Republicans such as former first lady Nancy Reagan and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They note that the original stem cell lines have been whittled to about 20, all of them contaminated. They urged that the policy be loosened, even as private foundations and states, including California, funded their own research.
From the July 19 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck:
BECK: One day after Congress sent him a bill expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, George Bush decides to do something he hasn't done in five years as president.
BUSH [video clip]: This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it.
BECK: Here's what you may not know, a little forgotten fact: It was George Bush who opened the doors for federal funding. He was the first president to fund it, just not research that destroys living human embryos.
Side note: Bill Clinton in 1995 opposed funding some stem-cell research on embryos specifically created for experimentation on moral and ethical grounds. Aren't these two guys, Republican and Democrat, saying exactly the same thing?
Nobody has been talking about banning it. The only issue is whether America [sic] taxpayers should be forced to pay for it. Call me crazy, but I seem to recall that we have this little system called capitalism that can fund the research.