President Bush will announce on television tonight whether he will permit federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. How did funding stem-cell research become the president's decision?
Because the executive branch, through the National Institutes of Health, distributes all federal funding for medical research, and unless Congress is ultra-specific about research funding, the executive branch has latitude to interpret the law.
In 1996, Congress barred NIH from funding any research that involves the destruction of human embryos. But that law came two years before privately funded researchers isolated human stem cells from embryos, a process that destroys the embryo. (Researchers hope to use these stem-cell "lines" to cure a variety of illnesses.)
The Clinton administration asked its lawyers in 1998 whether the 1996 ban applied to stem-cell research. The lawyers concluded no because stem cells are not embryos and cannot become a human being. The lawyers also decided that the federal government could fund stem-cell research as long as it didn't fund the harvesting of stem cells. Last fall, the NIH unveiled federal guidelines that would allow federally funded research on stem cells harvested by private researchers from embryos created during in vitro fertilization.
After he became president, Bush invoked his power as chief executive to suspend the NIH guidelines and ordered a scientific and ethical review of stem-cell research. Tonight's announcement signals that the review is complete. The review is advisory only: Bush could have delegated the final decision on stem-cell research to the NIH or to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, but he opted to decide the issue himself.
(See this stem-cell science primer from the National Institutes of Health.)
Explainer thanks Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society for Cell Biology, and Slate readers Glenn Kinen and Noelle Knapp for asking the question.