Stem Cells, Life, and the Law
A federal court steps into the debate.


Monday’s decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia halting all federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research is a surprising milestone in the decade-long debate over this morally fraught field — and another opportunity to make the case that medical research must proceed hand-in-hand with respect for life and human dignity.

First, a little background. Human embryonic stem cells, which many scientists hope will someday lead to new therapies for a range of diseases, can be obtained only through the destruction of human embryos. But the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which has been passed into law consistently since 1996 as part of the annual budget legislation, forbids federal funding for

(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.

In 1999, the general counsel of the Clinton administration’s Department of Health and Human Services argued that, consistent with the amendment, the government can fund research that uses stem cells derived from human embryos, so long as it does not fund the actual act of destroying those embryos. This way, the government technically does not fund research “in which” embryos are destroyed. President Clinton proposed to fund work that used lines of cells derived from the ongoing destruction of embryos, but to keep federal funds out of the specific process of destroying those embryos.

Whether or not it was a valid interpretation of the letter of the law, this proposal was certainly in violation of the spirit of the law. By essentially telling researchers, “if you destroy an embryo with your own money, then you will become eligible for federal funds,” Clinton’s proposed policy would have incentivized the destruction of human embryos.

That policy never actually took effect — his administration ended before any funds flowed. When President Bush came to office, he decided that while it might be worthwhile to use some public funds to see where research on embryonic stem cells might go (and particularly to develop cells with the abilities of embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos), it was important not to use taxpayer dollars to encourage the destruction of developing human beings. Presuming the legal validity of the Clinton administration’s interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, the Bush administration looked for a way to help scientists see where the research might go while not creating incentives for further embryo destruction.

In August 2001, Bush announced a compromise policy: He would use federal dollars to fund research on lines of cells derived from embryos that had been destroyed before his announcement, but not on any lines created after the announcement. That way, the availability of federal dollars would not act as an encouragement to destroy embryos in the future. This, Bush believed, was in line with both the letter and the spirit of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

Almost immediately, the Left attacked that policy, claiming that it was deceitful (not so), that it caused American researchers to fall behind the rest of the world (demonstrably false), and that it was part of a larger Republican “war on science” (ludicrous). To be sure, pro-life critics could truthfully criticize the Bush administration for not going far enough to protect human embryos. And scientists could correctly criticize the Bush policy for slowing somewhat the pace of their research — moral restraints will have that effect. But imperfect though it was, the Bush policy was a reasonable compromise that promoted research without turning the destruction of human embryos into a national project.