Congressional Inaction Leaves Stem-Cell Research At Risk

Religious conservatives are celebrating a federal judge’s ruling from yesterday that may prohibit the research use of most embryonic stem cells as government and university scientists are left scrambling to figure out what impact the decision will have on their studies.

The decision is based on new rules set by the Obama administration last year which allowed financing of research into any embryonic stem-cell lines that either were allowed by the Bush administration or had been created using embryos discarded after fertilization procedures and in which unpaid donors had given clear consent for the embryos to be used for research purposes.

At issue in the case is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bans federal financing for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” The amendment has been attached as a rider to appropriations bills since 1995. The Obama administration argued that the new rules did not violate the Dickey-Wicker Amendment because the federal money would be used only once the embryonic stem cells were created but would not finance the process by which embryos were destroyed.

The judge disagreed, writing that embryonic stem-cell research “necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.”

From the New York Times:

For scientists, the problem with the judge’s reasoning is that it may render all scientific work regarding embryonic stem cells illegal—including work allowed under the more restrictive policy adopted by President George W. Bush in 2001.

For years, private financing has been used to create embryonic stem cell lines, mostly from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. The process destroys the embryos. President Bush agreed to finance embryonic stem-cell research, but limited federally financed research to 21 cell lines already in existence by 2001.

Under the Obama administration, private money was still needed to obtain the embryonic stem cells, but federal money could be used to conduct research on hundreds more stem cell lines, as long as donors of embryos signed consent forms and complied with other rules.

While Judge Royce C. Lamberth’s ruling could leave in limbo research for a host of much-needed treatments for many illnesses, the decision is based on what is a clearly articulated law:

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment unambiguously prohibits the use of federal funds for all research in which a human embryo is destroyed. It is not limited to prohibit federal funding of only the ‘piece of research’ in which an embryo is destroyed. Thus, if ESC [embryonic stem cell] research is research in which an embryo is destroyed, the guidelines, by funding ESC research, violate the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council actually gave a rather accurate summation of the case:

Today’s ruling is a stinging rebuke to the Obama administration and its attempt to circumvent sound science and federal law, which clearly prohibits federal funding for research that involves the destruction of human embryos. The Court recognized that since the law is unambiguous, so must be its ruling.

In his statement, Perkins then goes on to make a litany of assertions that grossly misrepresent the scientific issues behind the debate, so I won’t reprint them.

Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life said,

Since 1996, Congress has been clear that no federal funds are to be used in research that destroys, or even harms, embryos. The Obama administration has attempted to skirt the law by arguing that they are only funding research after the embryos are destroyed. Today’s sensible ruling reconfirms what we already knew, that administration policy is in violation of the law.

So, as articulated by these anti-science groups, Lamberth’s decision highlights the real problem here. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment has been routinely renewed each year since its original passage, even under the Obama administration and by the Democratically-controlled Congress.

A link to the full ruling is available here.

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