WASHINGTON — While lifting the Bush administration’s restrictions on federally financed human embryonic stem cell research, President Obama intends to avoid the thorniest question in the debate: whether taxpayer dollars should be used to experiment on embryos themselves, two senior administration officials said Sunday.
The officials, who provided details of the announcement Mr. Obama will make Monday at the White House, said the president would leave it to Congress to determine whether the long-standing legislative ban on federal financing for human embryo experiments should also be overturned.
Yet, people on both sides of the stem cell debate say Mr. Obama’s announcement could lead to a reconsideration of the ban on Capitol Hill, an idea so controversial and fraught with ethical implications that the mere discussion of it would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, when President George W. Bush was in office.
The ban, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, first became law in 1996, and has been renewed by Congress every year since. It specifically bans the use of tax dollars to create human embryos — a practice that is routine in private fertility clinics — or for research in which embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury.
At first, the ban stood in the way of taxpayer-financed embryonic stem cell research, because embryos are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. But in August 2001, in a careful compromise, President Bush opened the door a tiny crack, by ordering that tax dollars could be used for studies on a small number of lines, or colonies, of stem cells already extracted from embryos — so long as federal researchers did not do the extraction themselves.
On Monday, Mr. Obama will throw open the door much farther with an executive order that will “make clear that the government intends to support” human embryonic stem cell research, said Harold Varmus, the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who advises Mr. Obama on science matters.
To the delight of patients’ groups and scientists, the order will allow research on hundreds of stem cell lines already in existence, as well as ones yet to be created, typically from embryos left over from fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded.
The order comes just in time for researchers to take advantage of money in Mr. Obama’s economic recovery package and use it for stem cell studies. But because of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, federal researchers would still be unable to create their own stem cell lines.
Mr. Obama has no power to overturn the Dickey-Wicker ban. Only Congress, which attaches the ban to appropriations bills, can overturn it. Mr. Obama has not taken a position on the ban and does not intend to, Melody C. Barnes, his chief domestic policy adviser, said Sunday. The president believes stem cell research “should be done in compliance with federal law,” she said, adding that Mr. Obama recognizes the divisiveness of the issue. “We are committed to pursuing stem cell research quite responsibly but we recognize there are a range of beliefs on this,” she said.
Because embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into any type of cell or tissue in the body, many scientists and advocates for patients believe they hold the possibility for treatments and cures for ailments as varied as diabetes and heart disease. Some researchers say stem cells may someday be used to treat catastrophic injuries, like damage to the spinal cord.
Mr. Bush twice vetoed legislation that would have expanded his 2001 policy. Although Mr. Obama’s action on Monday has broad bipartisan support, it could still be overturned by a successor so House Democrats are expected to draft legislation that would codify the president’s executive order.
But with Mr. Obama revisiting the Bush policy, Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado and a leading advocate for embryonic stem cell research, said Sunday in an interview that overturning the embryo experiment ban might not be as far-fetched as some critics imagine.
Ms. DeGette said the first move for lawmakers would be to turn the steps Mr. Obama takes by executive order on Monday into law. But she said she was also talking to her colleagues about overturning the broader Dickey-Wicker restriction.
“Dickey-Wicker is 13 years old now, and I think we need to review these policies,” Ms. DeGette said. “I’ve already talked to several pro-life Democrats about Dickey-Wicker, and they seemed open to the concept of reversing the policy if we could show that it was necessary to foster this research.”
A senior House Democratic leadership aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said overturning the ban “would be difficult, but not impossible,” adding, “It’s not something that we would do right away, but it’s something that we would look at.”
Fertility researchers also believe the climate is ripe to allow federal money for their work, especially in light of the recent controversy over the birth of octuplets in California, said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
“I think we’re thrilled that the president is going to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research,” Mr. Tipton said Sunday. “It is clear, though, that Congress needs to remove the restrictions it puts on other forms of embryo research.”
Already abortion opponents are bracing for a battle. “The administration now steps onto a very steep, very slippery slope,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. “Many researchers will never be satisfied only with the so-called leftover embryos.”
One Republican lawmaker, Representative Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, is calling Mr. Obama “the abortion president,” and is planning his own event on Monday to protest Mr. Obama’s new stem cell policy.
Mr. Smith said in an interview Sunday that he did not think lawmakers would go along with overturning the embryo experiment ban.
“I don’t think it will fly because the movement in the country is in favor of life,” he said. “For Congress to say that the new guinea pig will be human embryos, most Americans will find that highly offensive.”
Mr. Obama’s announcement on Monday will be part of a broader initiative to make good on his pledge to separate science and politics. Dr. Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health who is a co-chairman of a panel that advises Mr. Obama on science issues, said the president would issue a memorandum to “restore public confidence in the process by which scientific policy is used to guide government action,” by directing his administration to draft guidelines for the use of scientific information and the appointment of outside science advisers.
In reversing the stem cell policy Mr. Bush put in place in August 2001, Mr. Obama will direct the National Institutes of Health to come up with new stem cell research guidelines within 120 days.
Ms. DeGette said she is already talking to the White House about what the bill might say.
“It’s a wonderful development tomorrow,” she said, “but it’s really the first step in opening up ethical cell-based research.”
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG