It’s baa-ack! Just when you thought the political fight over federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR) was over, United States District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that President Obama’s ESCR policy violates the “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” a federal law barring federal funding of “the creation of a human embryo . . . for research purposes” and “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” In response, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would authorize federal funding for human cloning.
Dickey-Wicker, which most Americans have probably never heard of, is among the most bipartisan laws ever enacted. It has been passed each year since 1996 as part of the annual HHS appropriations bill by Republican and Democratic Congresses, including those led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And it has been signed into law each year by Democratic (Clinton, Obama) and Republican (Bush) presidents — each of whom also sought to circumvent the law to fund ESCR without directly violating its terms.
Dickey-Wicker first came into serious conflict with the science sector in 1998 with the creation of the first human embryonic-stem-cell lines, the derivation of which destroys embryos. President Clinton wanted to fund the new field, so (true to form) he developed a way around the law that clearly violated its spirit, but, he argued, not its letter: Private money would be used to actually destroy the embryos and derive the cell lines. Thereafter, the NIH would fund the research so long as the embryos were originally created for use via in-vitro-fertilization fertility treatments.
Clinton left office before his policy became effective. George W. Bush, deeply troubled by the ethics of ESCR, immediately suspended the Clinton policy, sparking an epochal political struggle, with the new president sandwiched between his pro-life base, which opposed all federal funding, and a potent political coalition of pro-ESCR scientists, celebrities, and patient-advocacy groups, and the mainstream media, claiming hyperbolically that stem cells would soon provide “cures” for intractable diseases if Bush would only open the federal coffers.
Bush eventually fashioned a “compromise,” restricting NIH funding of ESCR to cell lines already in existence as of Aug. 9, 2001. But rather than assuage the science sector by permitting federal funding — which amounted to hundreds of millions during Bush’s tenure — the Bush policy instead fueled a political conflagration that lasted for the balance of his term.
When President Obama returned to the Clinton approach in 2009, the political swirl around ESCR quieted. But not everyone got the message that the brawl was supposed to be over. Little noticed by the media and political activists on both sides of the controversy, two adult-stem-cell scientists, James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, sued the government (Sherley v. Sebelius) seeking an injunction against all ESCR funding as violating Dickey-Wicker. Judge Lamberth at first dismissed the case for lack of standing. But that ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Then came the shock: Last month, Lamberth enjoined federal funding of ESCR, ruling, in part:
The language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed. This prohibition encompasses all “research in which” an embryo is destroyed, not just the “piece of research” in which the embryo is destroyed. Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that resulted in the destruction of an embryo, like the derivation of ESCs, or to research on the embryo itself, Congress would have written the statute that way. Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written.
Stunned, the biotechnology sector and its mainstream-media followers erupted in fury. Angry editorials decrying the decision appeared in the New York Times on down. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), warned darkly in a Senate hearing that scientists may “turn away from an area of research that, while promising, is now fraught with uncertainty.” More portentously, quiescent legislation that would overturn Dickey-Wicker, known as the DeGette/Castle Bill (H.R. 4808 “The Stem Cell Research Advancement Act”), was shifted to the front burner as Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) announced he was introducing companion legislation (S. 3766) so the bill can be rushed into law before the current Congress expires.
But DeGette/Castle/Specter would do more than restore Obama’s ESCR policy. It would also explicitly authorize federal funding of human-cloning research — which is not permitted under the current NIH plan.