As Ramesh notes below, Rep. Bart Stupak, in this interview, tries to justify his view that President Obama’s executive order can change the new health-care law to keep it from funding abortions by equating that order with an executive order that President Bush signed regarding stem-cell research in 2007. Stupak says:
Some people say this piece of paper isn’t worth it, but I would remind them that in 2007, when George W. Bush signed the executive order to prevent stem-cell research, these groups that are criticizing it, they applauded it, they welcomed it; and now President Obama’s going to sign an executive order once again protecting life and somehow it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. You can’t have it both ways.
This argument makes no sense whatsoever. I was part of the team that produced Bush’s executive order, the text of which you can read here. The order was in no way designed to “prevent stem-cell research,” or to change an existing law, modify the treatment of the life question in federal law, or anything else that Stupak is suggesting President Obama’s order will do. It merely instructed the National Institutes of Health to encourage the exploration of potential alternatives to embryo-destructive research.
About five years ago, advances in stem-cell research began to suggest that there might be alternative paths to producing cells with the abilities of embryonic stem cells but without requiring the destruction of embryos. President Bush wanted to encourage the exploration of those alternative avenues alongside the research that his 2001 stem-cell research funding policy enabled, and within the bounds of that policy. The Congress considered a bill that would have appropriated special funds to do so, but did not pass it. The NIH then told the White House that they could launch some efforts to encourage that research using existing funds already appropriated to the agency, but that it would help to have some specific instructions to do so, and some guidance on how. The executive order provided those.
Bush’s order did not touch on the interaction of federal law and the life question, since there’s really very little you can do on that front with an executive order—and there’s basically nothing you can do on the question of abortion and public funding by executive order, given the additional burden of legal precedents on that front. That’s why Obama’s executive order in fact does nothing, as even a cursory reading of its text would make clear.