By COMMENTARY contributor
updated 8/24/2010 4:24:00 PM ET 2010-08-24T20:24:00

Just when you thought embryonic stem cell research would begin to show whether regenerating damaged cells would allow spinal cord injury victims to walk again or help repair damaged hearts, a federal district court judge has ordered it to stop.

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Judge Royce Lamberth has issued an injunction Monday blocking the use of any federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. In his ruling, Lamberth concluded that last year's order from President Barack Obama expanding support for embryonic stem cell research violated a congressional law. In doing so, the judge has both hobbled vital research and left this country lagging behind its competitors around the world as they aggressively move ahead with research using cells from human embryos.

Why did Lamberth reverse the executive order?

In 1996, an amendment was attached to an appropriation bill to fund the Department of Health and Human Services by Congress. It was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. The Dickey-Wicker amendment, named for Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the two Congressmen who proposed it, has been attached to each appropriation bill every year since then. The amendment — the law the judge used to bring embryonic experiments to a screeching halt — says government money can’t be spent to create, destroy, discard or “injure” human embryos in the name of stem cell science.

Obama mulls options after stem cell ruling

Competing scientific ideas
In a lawsuit initially brought by a few scientists, the judge ruled that the Obama guidelines — intended to allow limited stem cell research involving embryo destruction — threatened their ability to get grants for adult stem cells. Other groups had argued that destroying embryos would decrease the number of human embryos available for adoption.

The judge may be right about the Dickey amendment, but this is the wrong case to have this battle. Despite the ruling of a higher court which let this fiasco proceed, those initially bringing this lawsuit have no case.

This litigation began with the claim by a group, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, that if embryonic research is allowed to proceed, then they would have fewer embryos to make available to couples. In reality, very few couples using in vitro fertilization want someone else's embryo; most seek to have their own biological child.

The claim by a tiny handful of scientists that embryonic stem cell research will hinder their chances for funding for other approaches using adult stem cells is also completely implausible.  No one knows what strategy to pursue at this early stage of stem cell science — embryonic, cloning, induced pluripotency and adult stem cells all have their champions. All can, and should, compete to secure federal funds solely on the merit of their science.

A court is no place to resolve issues of funding priorities among competing scientific ideas.

Once Judge Lamberth got his hands on this case, he chose to use the Dickey-Wicker amendment to bring federal funding for embryonic research to a halt. This is an especially strange thing for a federal judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan, who presumably ought not be making policy from the bench.

Controversial decision
The Dickey-Wicker amendment is a problem. The Obama administration maintained that this amendment would not get in the way of federal money for stem cell research. So, ironically, did the Bush administration, which had allowed an even more restricted form of federally funded stem cell research to proceed.

They may be right. The Justice Department is examining all options to challenge the ruling.  But, that will take time — time the sick and the dying who are hoping for a breakthrough from stem cell research — do not have.

It is time to drop Dickey-Wicker from the next appropriation bill for Health and Human Services. It is a dangerous landmine that should not be in the way of the embryonic stem cell research that most Americans thought they had voted to allow to proceed when they elected Obama. 

The judge's decision, as controversial as it is in a lousy case, should remind us that you cannot have it both ways. Either you stop mindlessly enacting language that can be seen as prohibiting all embryonic stem cell research, or you risk not having federally funded embryonic stem cell research. 

Millions of disabled and ill Americans deserve better.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

© 2013  Reprints

Video: Politics at heart of stem cell matters

  1. Transcript of: Politics at heart of stem cell matters

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Interesting story. The Justice Department announced late today it will appeal yesterday's court ruling prohibiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research . That ruling left a lot of researchers fairly stunned. The director of the National Institutes of Health said it, quote, "pours sand into the engine of discovery." For now much of that research remains on hold. We get more from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

    ROBERT BAZELL reporting: Dr. Chuck Murry is in the delicate business of rebuilding severely damaged hearts and has tried adult and embryonic stem cells in his efforts.

    Dr. CHUCK MURRY (University of Washington Medicine): We're very pragmatic. Whatever works best for us.

    BAZELL: What he has accomplished with embryonic stem cells is remarkable: making new heart muscle cells that beat in laboratory conditions. So these are heart cells that are beating, and they were made from embryonic stem cells ?

    Dr. MURRY: Exactly. Within a period of about two weeks, we can transform them from these flat little cells that just sit on the bottom of the dish to vigorously beating heart muscle .

    Unidentified Woman: This is a echo of your old heart.

    BAZELL: And this team at the University of Washington has already started injecting cells into people.

    Mr. DICK MONTGOMERY: Is that the valve there going up and down?

    Woman: This is the valve.

    BAZELL: Like Dick Montgomery , while he was awaiting a heart transplant .

    Dr. MURRY: They can become any of two hundred and some odd cell types in the body.

    BAZELL: Because of yesterday's court ruling , this research supported by federal money might have to stop by the end of the year. Scientists say much will be lost.

    Dr. ARNOLD KRIEGSTEIN (University of California, San Francisco): This really appears to me a very backwards step at a moment in time when we, the scientists and the public at large, are anticipating some significant advances in stem cell biology.

    BAZELL: Congress has decreed that federal money can't be used to destroy embryos, the first part of making embryonic stem cells . President Obama and his two predecessors said that once the cells were removed, government money could be used to work on them. Groups supporting the ruling say the judge was just following the letter of the law .

    Mr. DAVID PRENTICE (Family Research Institute): You can't part out the research. Embryonic stem cell research relies on destruction of human embryos, and so we're pleased with the ruling.

    BAZELL: The ruling does not affect privately funded research, but many scientists say without federal funding it will take much longer to learn the lifesaving potential of embryonic stem cells . Robert


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