President Bush’s problematic stance on stem cell research

October 25, 2014

Stem Cells

Former US President George Bush (Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA)

Former US President George Bush (Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA)

In 2001, President George Bush explained why he chose to ban any federal funding for new lines of human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESC) for research, citing his religious beliefs, but tried to reassure scientists and the public that this ban would not interfere with progress in stem cell research.

In an August 9, 2001 speech, he gave the following statement:

“As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist” I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines ” where the life and death decision has already been made”, This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research” without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.” (From the American Presidency Project’s website.)

This statement sounds reassuring on its surface, but proves troubling upon further inspection. This article does not examine the ethical issues around stem cell research (read the book referenced in the article for that issue), but looks at why there is no strong scientific reasoning behind Bush’s policy.

Using Russel Korobkin’s book, Stem Cell Century, and a few other relevant sources, we can uncover the ways in which this policy is problematic. (See Korobkin, 49-55)

  • At the time Bush gave this statement, only 21 of the 60 lines were ready for use in research.
  • Some institutions did not have the resources to ship stem cell lines to other labs.
  • National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available for researchers.
  • The early existing lines were developed using mouse feeder cells, making them virtually useless for research or injection into human subjects because of their susceptibility to viruses.
  • The existing stem cell lines were not designed to study specific individual diseases that stem cell research has the potential to treat, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries.
  • The existing hESC lines were of much lower quality, and tended to degrade over time, also making them less than suitable for research.

The President of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine stated, “The president seems to have information far different from that of the bulk of the medical community.” (Source)

Bush’s policy decision had a serious impact on stem cell research, since at the time of his decision, out of more than $28 billion for basic medical research, as much as 90% was from the federal government. (Korobkin, 39)

It is also worth noting that President Barack Obama lifted this federal funding ban in 2009.


Korobkin, Russell, and Stephen R. Munzer. 2007. Stem cell century: law and policy for a breakthrough technology. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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