- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In two sweeping moves Monday, President Obama rolled back highly symbolic Bush-era policies, signing an order to erase restrictions on taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research and ordering his administration to disregard W.+Bush” >President George W. Bush’s signing statements, which had come to be seen as a way to circumvent the will of Congress.

Declaring that the stem cell issue had moved past Mr. Bush’s life-or-death morality, Mr. Obama said he is instead bowing to a different morality that respects majority opinion and puts the ethic of helping the living at the top.

“When it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent,” he said. “As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research - and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.”

On signing statements - which many presidents have issued to interpret new laws and direct implementation by the federal government - Mr. Obama ordered his administration to check with the attorney general before following any other president’s statements.

Mr. Bush was accused of disregarding Congress with statements that said the Justice Department could withhold information from lawmakers about FBI searches pertaining to the USA Patriot Act, citing national security, and that as commander in chief he could waive a ban on torture if harsh techniques could prevent terrorist attacks.

Mr. Obama announced that he would follow new self-imposed rules to reduce the number of statements he will sign, but defended signing statements as important presidential tools. In effect, it was only a partial break with the contentious Bush-era policy.

“Such signing statements serve a legitimate function in our system, at least when based on well-founded constitutional objections,” the president said. “In appropriately limited circumstances, they represent an exercise of the president’s constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and they promote a healthy dialogue between the executive branch and the Congress.”

The new embryonic stem cell policy thrilled scientists, ethicists and others who were in the White House East Room to see the president sign the order. One person present described the event as “like March Madness for science.”

Mr. Bush’s 2001 policy for the first time allowed federal funding of research into embryonic stem cells, but severely restricted it only to those lines that existed when he issued his order. Mr. Bush argued the life-or-death decision had already been made in those cases, so their research potential shouldn’t be squandered.

Scientists value embryonic stem cells because they become the full panoply of human cells, suggesting they may be used to discover ways to regenerate tissue or to help cures for degenerative diseases. The research draws the support of even some staunchly pro-life lawmakers such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who attended Mr. Obama’s executive order signing ceremony.

After Mr. Bush’s order, some states, most notably California, committed hundreds of millions of dollars to funding embryonic stem cell research.

But opponents of Mr. Obama’s new policy said the president is forcing taxpayers to pay for something that many of them consider immoral and that so far is unproven.

“This decision represents the triumph of lobbying over logic. There is no valid reason for destroying human life when science is continually proving that the same cures and treatments can be achieved by using other, more ethical, avenues,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who is a doctor. “Providing federal funding for theories backed by special interest groups rather than scientific fact is itself an ideological and political act. Today’s decision will do nothing but bring our society closer to the darkest potentials of biomedicine.”

Mr. Coburn said that since Mr. Bush’s 2001 policy went into effect, researchers have made advances in many other areas, but “scientists around the world have produced zero therapeutic breakthroughs in the area of embryonic stem cell research.”

Still, in overturning Mr. Bush’s policy, Mr. Obama said he was relying on a majority consensus in making his decision: “After much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans - from across the political spectrum and from all backgrounds and beliefs - have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research, that the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.”

Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, was in the East Room for the announcement and said Mr. Obama’s move showed that he is trying to get past debilitating old arguments.

“What he wants to do is really try to turn the page on some of these cultural controversies that have been unconstructive,” Mr. Moreno said.

He said unlike Mr. Bush’s contrast of science or ethics, Mr. Obama focused on the value of science for ethics.

“All of our moral traditions say you’re supposed to help people who are hurting. That somehow gets lost in all this discussion,” Mr. Moreno said. “It always made me a little anxious to hear President Bush say it’s science or ethics. That makes it sound like science is taking us down the road to perdition. I see science as a moral adventure. We’re trying to improve the human condition.”

Mr. Obama has freed up federal money for embryonic stem cell research the same as it would for any other type of research. He has given the National Institutes of Health 120 days to devise new guidelines.

As for signing statements, it was unclear how Mr. Obama might implement his new self-imposed rules.

Signing statements are the memos presidents sometimes issue when they sign bills that include interpretations of the measures, and directions for how their administration employees should implement the new laws.

Mr. Obama said he would issue statements only after he has made his objections known to Congress and when they involve major constitutional issues. He said he would be specific in citing his objections in the statements.

Signing statements date to the 19th century and have been defended by conservative and liberal legal scholars.

The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara says President Clinton issued far more statements than Mr. Bush did.

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