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Stem cell reversal: Ill Americans deserve better

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.  But millions of ill and disabled Americans deserve better.
/ Source: contributor

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.

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.