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Professors react to stem cell decision

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In response to President Barack Obama lifting the limits of federal funding for stem cell research, Notre Dame professors took a stance on the issue and explained how it will affect Notre Dame as a Catholic university.

Obama’s executive order overturned former President George W. Bush’s policy, which gave federal funding only to research that used embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization clinics already going to be destroyed. Now, Obama will give federal funding to research that uses embryos created solely for the sake of research, associate professor of Law Orlando Carter Snead said.

“President Obama does not make any sort of distinction between the sources of embryonic stem cells that are eligible for research funding,” Snead said. “That’s the most radical proposal that’s ever been suggested.”

Obama’s decision sparks controversy because many disagree over the nature of a human embryo and whether or not it deserves the same rights as every human being, Malcolm Fraser Jr., professor of biological sciences, said.

He believes that lifting the ban was the appropriate action to take because it will force society to face the issue and make the “hard decisions.”

Fraser said due to Obama’s decision, “there will be public debate and public scrutiny, and hopefully we as a society will come to an understanding about what we can or cannot allow.”

He said although he personally would prefer to find alternatives to human embryonic stem cell research, he thinks that lifting the ban was the appropriate approach because it does not limit scientific investigation or force one point of view.

“I value the contributions of science to humankind too much to want any one person or group telling scientists what they can or cannot explore,” Fraser said.

Snead disagrees with the argument that no avenues of research should be closed off.

“I don’t find that compelling. Obviously there are and should be ethical limits to science.” Snead said. “What we owe to human embryos is a moral question, not a scientific question.”

Snead does not support Obama’s decision to lift the ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

“I think it’s regrettable that tax players are being compelled to support this kind of research, especially in light of all the alternative sources of stem cells that don’t require the destruction of embryos,” Snead said.

Notre Dame currently does not participate in stem cell research, Fraser said.

However, Notre Dame does participate in adult stem cell research, which takes stem cells from tissue that does not require the destruction of a human embryo, like from umbilical cord blood, fat cells or bone marrow, Snead said.

“If [Obama] decides to disproportionately fund embryonic stem cell research to the exclusion of other forms of stem cell research, our researchers may see a drop in funding,” Snead said.

Both Snead and Fraser are in favor of exploring alternative methods to embryonic stem cell research.

“I think we should seize this opportunity to be truly reflective of our convictions and initiate a research program expansion in stem cell research so that we not only espouse non-embryonic stem cell research from an ideological perspective, but we also participate in, if not pioneer, the development of real scientific advancements that provide alternatives,” Fraser said. “Talk is cheap. We need action at the scientific forefront of this endeavor, and we need it at this University.”