Obama's Widely-Unpublicized Backtrack on Stem Cells

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On March 11, President Obama held a press conference that got much attention, during which he announced his executive order that he claimed rescinded Bush's so-called ban on embryonic stem cell research. The discerning knew that there was quite a bit of dishonesty in that press conference, including how the media described it. I discussed several problems in his announcement at the time, so I won't repeat all that. It did seem to me to be excessively unfair and insulting to pro-lifers, and he engaged in several instances of historical revisionism at Bush's expense that struck me as underhanded and deceptive.

Yesterday I discovered an excellent summary of the timeline on the general issue of stem cell research. A couple facts stand out as too-often ignored. It was actually President Clinton in 1996, not President Bush in 2001, who began the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (there was never a ban on the research, just federal funding of it). It's true that Clinton did announce at the end of his second term that he wanted to change that and was expecting soon-to-be-president Gore to change that policy, but there was never actually any funding during Clinton's presidency that Bush did away with, as the common myth usually has it. Bush didn't restrict funding that was already there. He actually loosened the restrictions by providing funding for the 21 lines of existing stem cells from already-destroyed embryos, funding that had not been available under Clinton. There was never any ban on embryonic stem cell research or on destroying embryos, but Clinton did ban federal funding on any such research, and Bush weakened that ban by allowing some funding for already-existing stem cell lines.

That was all just a fact-checking reminder, since none of it was really news to me. But there was one piece of information that completely surprised me. After this much-touted press conference that the White House and the media had presented as a return to the 21st century after eight years in the stone age, President Obama did indeed sign the executive order that opened up funding for new lines of embryonic stem cells. However, he signed a bill two days later that undid his own executive order, at least with respect to this year's funding from the main spending bill Congress passed.

When I first read this, I immediately wanted to find something to verify it. It was incredibly difficult to find an actual news story on it, since the mainstream media either suppressed it or never got the information on it. The one news story I could find was from a partisan organization, but it does give chapter and verse for where to find the language in the bill that does indeed do exactly what the story says it does. It's in Title V, section 509 of the Omnibus spending bill (page 128 of this PDF; it appears in full here). It repeats verbatim exactly the section that since 1996 has appeared in every such spending bill under President Clinton and President Bush. This bill therefore does seem to prohibit what Obama's executive order sought to do, and the president signed the bill into law a mere two days after issuing the executive order with such fanfare. Of course, since it appeared in spending bills during Bush's administration, I'm not sure how he got away with the stem-cell funding that he implemented. Wasn't that therefore illegal? Or was the money provided by a separate act of Congress?

I'm not going to speculate on whether President Obama knew what he was doing and if so why he did it. It may have been an instance of negligence in knowing what he was signing, or it may have been an instance of incredible deceit in making a big deal about a big change that he knew he was going to undermine almost immediately. The former seems much more likely to me given the president's officially-stated views and other actions related to this. But it does seem to be true that it happened, despite my initial skepticism upon reading this, and it does raise similar issues for Bush's executive order permitting more limited funding for embryonic stem cell research, although for all I know he never intended funding to come from the big spending bill each year and so signed it willingly. (I know that's not true of Obama, who did seem to expect this bill to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research. His statements that very week did give that impression.) This one's going in my upcoming post on truths that I at first thought must be myths.

Update: On second thought, this probably wasn't an issue for Bush, since it doesn't prohibit funding for stem cell research on already-existing lines of embryonic stem cells or on stem cells derived from other methods. I believe Obama has revoked the funding for both of those, so it's more of a problem for him, who only wanted to fund research that actually destroyed embryos in the process, and this bill prevents any of these funds from being used for such research.


I don't understand how this necessarily implies either negligence or deceit on Obama's part. The full text of HR 1105 is 465 pages long. It would be highly unusual for a president to read every provision of an omnibus appropriations bill and then threaten to veto every element he objected to. That's not how the system has ever worked. And it's quite legitimate to overturn an executive order via an executive order, then accept the will of Congress to the contrary (for a given fiscal year); it's not backtracking on an issue, but recognizing that the final word on the issue, according to the Constitution, comes from Congress.

It might not be negligence on his part if he had people explicitly instructed to look for things like this, and those people failed him. But it's striking that something that so significantly undermines what he and the media had just celebrated so vocally and victoriously, without anyone giving any indication that this was a setback for him or that his victory was no longer what it had been portrayed as. Usually if a president has to concede reluctantly on such a battle because it's required as a compromise on some other issue, it doesn't happen two days after such a huge victory celebration, and it's not as if the bill wasn't available for analysis before that celebration. It still seems really weird to me that things occurred the way they did.

I don't think there's any reason for a president to give in to Congress on anything unless they override a veto. If he had known about this and considered it as important as the "we're finally out of the stone age" press conference had seemed to indicate, then it's surprising that he didn't try to veto it and see if they could get it passed without that.

It's also surprising that all the supporters who had a field day two days earlier would sit on this story if indeed they knew about it. The only mainstream media piece I've found on it is from Fox News. I did, however, find a very different criticism of his own restrictions on research that may lead to fewer opportunities for research than under Bush for entirely different reasons.

"The one news story I could find was from a partisan organization"

Um....interesting post Jeremy, but this phrase stuck in my mind.

How many news organisations do you know that are not partisan?

Alan, what I meant is that it was from an organization known for being critical of the president and his party, and I thought it would be nice to find a source more recognizably reliable to those who don't share such views.

I knew what you meant ;) Finding hostile witnesses is a better source of authority and so more convincing.

It is just odd that we still talk as if some news organisations are 'non-partisan' when really those people seem to think of as being such are just left-wing. I rarely see fox news being accused of being non-partisan.

Disclaimer: I am an aussie...almost all our news is slanted left, but not so excessively as many american news organisations.

So,I guess if I had a point, it is that our use of language so often seems to reflect the biases of the left.

But some news sources are explicitly partisan. CNS is Catholic News Services, and they make no bones about having a viewpoint. I consider Fox News to be in the mainstream of news, just led and dominated by personalities who are right-leaning, with constant representation from the left in commentators and guest. But if you got all your news from Worldnet Daily, FRC, Focus on the Family, CNS, and CBN then I wouldn't expect you to be well-informed, just as if you got all your news from explicitly left-wing sources with no right-leaning representation. It was that distinction that I had in mind.

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