The stem cell debate is back

Hi there,

Just when you thought that it was safe to relax, stem cells are back. Not in the best of company, mind you. No one like lawyers, and settling a passionate debate about ethics in a courtroom seems unfair and underhanded. Isn’t that the job of Congress?

Well, actually that was US District Judge Royce Lamberth’s opinion, too, when he granted an injunction banning Federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

Every year without fail since 1996 the US Congress has passed the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which forbids funding for destructive embryo research. Human embryonic stem cell research is conducted on destroyed embryos, said Judge Lamberth. Ergo, it must be illegal.

It’s the argument of a black-letter lawyer who believes that it is his job to interpret statutes, not impose morality.

Both President Bush and President Obama wiggled around the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by saying: as long as you don’t kill embryos, we will fund research on your embryonic stem cells.

To be honest, this has always sounded dodgy to me and I said so back in 2001 when President Bush set down his policy: “Ethically, it enshrines the principle that it is wrong to benefit from experiments on someone you have killed, but right if someone else has done it for you.”

If the Obama Administration loses its appeal against Judge Lamberth’s injunction, Federally-funded research on human embryonic stem cells will stop. However, there is a way to get it moving again: drop the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Whether the Obama Administration has the energy to push this through Congress before the mid-term elections in November is doubtful. And afterwards it may lose its majority in one or both houses, making it even more doubtful.

It may be time for scientist working on Federally-funded human embryonic stem cells to stock up on boxes of tissues.

Michael Cook


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