Bioethics: A federal judge rules that the administration violated congressional intent when it lifted restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. No, this will not usher in a new dark age.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth was striking enough. Lamberth said that when President Obama lifted Bush administration restrictions on ESCR, he violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. First passed in 1996, and passed every year as part of the federal budget, Dickey-Wicker blocks federal funds for stem cell research in which human embryos are destroyed.
Perhaps more striking is the press coverage of Lamberth's ruling. The Associated Press reported that it "blocked rules expanding stem cell research," a move "that could stall potentially lifesaving research." But all Lamberth did was enforce the law. Lifesaving research using stem cells is still free to proceed.
In lifting the Bush executive order, the Obama administration thought it had found a clever way around Dickey-Wicker. Under new National Institutes of Health guidelines, if private money were used to destroy the embryos, federal money could still be used to fund later research on the derived cell lines, as long as those donating the embryos were told of other options, including donating the embryo to an infertile couple.
Judge Lamberth said, uh, no. The circumstances of the embryo's destruction did not matter. The federal prohibition was clear and absolute: Federal funds could not be used for embryonic stem cell research, period. The new guidelines were a clear violation of federal intent.
The problem for opponents of the new guidelines was finding someone with standing in the courts. The embryos themselves could not sue, nor could anyone else sue on their behalf since the clients weren't accepted as human beings.
That problem was solved when a federal appeals court ruled that several plaintiffs, doctors who did research with adult stem cells, could sue over the new guidelines on the grounds that the guidelines could cause funding for their research, including federal money from NIH, to dry up.
Congress could amend Dewey-Wicker to allow the hair-splitting in the new guidelines, but in this politically volatile year, and after the controversy over abortion funding hidden in the fine print of ObamaCare, it is not likely to do so, at least not before a lame-duck session.
So does this stop stem cell research in its tracks? The answer is no. Private money can still be used to conduct ESCR that involves the destruction of human embryos. And the simple fact is that research involving adult stem cells has proved the more promising, producing actual treatments and therapies for actual people.
In 2004, vice presidential candidate John Edwards promised that if running mate John Kerry won, people would rise out of their wheelchairs and walk. In the 2006 election, actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's, made a commercial for Democratic Senate candidates in which he urged voters to support those candidates who opposed restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
As we noted then and note again now, ESCR was not the "most promising" avenue of stem cell research, and that was due not to lack of federal funds but to the difficulties of controlling the embryonic stem cells and what they develop into.
In 2006, researchers led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan's Kyoto University were first able to "reprogram" human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. Ironically, the National Institutes of Health says this type of stem cell offers the prospect of having an endless and renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
The media and many politicians have ignored adult stem cell successes and embryonic stem cell failures. We hope that stem cell research of all types will be driven by sound science leading to real results, not by ideology or tricky guidelines that ignore the intent of Congress.