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Helping Science, May Hurt Pro-Life Relations


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's move on stem cell research may have had a side effect. The president lifted restrictions yesterday on embryonic stem cell research. He also signed a memorandum seeking to separate science and politics. As pleasing as those moves were to many scientists, they did not help the president's efforts to reach out to those who disagree with him on abortion and other cultural issues. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: The president made his case for embryonic stem cell research before a crowd of scientists and health advocates in the White House East Room.

BARACK OBAMA: 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. That is a conclusion with which I agree.

ROVNER: Harold Varmus, who ran the National Institutes of Health in the Clinton administration and now advises President Obama on science policy, says it's a sea change for members of the research community.

HAROLD VARMUS: All scientists feel that one hand was tied behind our backs eight years ago, and suddenly that hand is freed.

ROVNER: Mr. Obama went onto talk about the second document he signed, a memo to ensure, quote, "scientific integrity." He said promoting science is about more than just providing money.

OBAMA: It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

ROVNER: Someone who says she experienced ideology overpowering science during the Bush administration was sitting in the audience. Susan Wood resigned in protest in 2005 as the top Women's Health official at the Food and Drug Administration. She says she wasn't privy to who decided what.

SUSAN WOOD: But what I do know is that science was trumped when FDA faced the decision about approving emergency contraception over the counter. It was not good science. It was not good medicine, and it wasn't good for American women.

ROVNER: FDA scientific staff had recommended that the drug be approved for non- prescription sale. Eventually it was, but only for those over age 18. But there are those who think that the Bush administration was correct to rein in the recommendations of some of its scientists, particularly when it comes to issues like stem cell research. Douglas Johnson is with the National Right to Life Committee.

DOUGLAS JOHNSON: There are in place an array of protections for human subjects that have grown up over 40 years, and these were found to be necessary because of the kinds of abuses that occur when you have specialists who may be highly qualified in their fields but get focused on a particular goal, the end comes to justify the means and they undertake the uses of human subjects in ways that are unethical and that affect society as a whole.

ROVNER: A bigger question is whether President Obama is moving more firmly into the abortion rights camp after working so hard to chart a middle ground in the reproductive rights arena. Yesterday's actions were the administration's third related to reproductive health. In January, President Obama restored funding to international family planning groups that perform or promote abortion. Last week, he proposed to repeal regulations that let health workers refuse to perform procedures that violate their beliefs. But both of those moves were announced with little fanfare, so as not to antagonize those on the other side of the polarized abortion debate. That wasn't the case yesterday. But Delaware Republican Congressman Mike Castle, a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research, says not to read too much into the president's sudden public stance.

MIKE CASTLE: I don't know if this president's become increasingly pro-choice. He's never really been anything but pro-choice.

ROVNER: Douglas Johnson at National Right-to-Life agreed with that assessment.

JOHNSON: The common ground that Barack Obama seeks with the pro-life movement is the burial ground.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Rovner