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Restoring Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Last week, in response to a lawsuit from two scientists alleging that the National Institutes of Health was in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a federal district court judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting NIH from continuing its human embryonic stem cell research. Passed by Congress in 1995, Dickey-Wicker declared that public funds cannot be used for research that destroys human embryos.

That law would have strangled federally funded human embryo stem cell research, since the only way to get the stem cells is by destroying the embryos. However, in 1999 the Department of Health and Human Services interpreted Dickey-Wicker to mean that publicly funded researchers could not themselves destroy embryos to harvest stem cells, but that they could work with cells that had been harvested with private funds elsewhere. The new ruling said that the distinction DHHS sought to make was meaningless.

I oppose Dickey-Wicker and believe that it should be amended or repealed. At the same time, I contend that DHHS’s interpretation insults the intelligence and moral commitment of our pro-life colleagues and neighbors.

Dickey-Wicker promises that embryos will not be destroyed with taxpayer’s money, thus relieving pro-life citizens of the burden of paying for something they find morally abhorrent. DHHS’s interpretation, in contrast, says, “Don’t worry – we aren’t using your money to destroy embryos, we’re just using it to do research on stem cells from embryos that were destroyed in a lab across the street.” But if it is abhorrent to participate in embryo destruction, it is equally abhorrent to support research on stem cells that can only be obtained by embryo destruction.

After eight years of the most secretive and slanted administration in history, our country has once again embraced the value of transparency. Putting Dickey-Wicker back on the table will allow us to have an honest and robust national discussion about research with human embryos. Numerous polls show that the majority of Americans supports stem cell research, just as the majority has accepted the practice of in vitro fertilization, which creates the nearly half a million embryos now frozen in clinics across the country. It is these leftover embryos, no longer needed by couples who have completed their families, that are voluntarily donated for research.

One option is to amend Dickey-Wicker to exclude from its purview research on embryos that exist outside a woman’s body. Senator Orrin Hatch, despite his opposition to abortion, has supported embryonic stem cell research because the embryos are not yet implanted. Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette has expressed interest in revisiting Dickey-Wicker. Congress ought to amend Dickey-Wicker and allow publicly funded scientists to do the research that we hope will cure disease and save human lives.

Dena S. Davis teaches bioethics at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Her most recent book is Genetic Dilemmas: Reproductive Technology, Parental Choices, and Children’s Futures. Davis is a member of the National Institutes of Health’s Human Embryonic Stem Cell Eligibility Working Group. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any group or of NIH.

Published on: August 31, 2010
Published in: Clinical Trials and Human Subjects Research, Emerging Biotechnology

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