Dickey-Wicker, sticky wicket…again

Oh boy, here we go again. Yesterday’s banning of human embryonic stem cell research by a federal judge brings us back to the issue raised by this blog on March 12, 2009.

We were celebrating a heady moment: At last, a breath of fresh air for biomedical science, the removal of Bush administration federal financing restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

But the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment loomed as a potential spoiler. And  in the last few blog paragraphs  I tried to read some tea leaves when taking a stab at seeking a hidden message to Congress in the Obama administration’s wording of the new law:

Does our new president expect Congress to alter the amendment? Is there enough unflappable support to do so? In the new law he signed a few days ago, one might find a hint:

‘Sec. 2.  Research.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law. ‘

Hmmm.  Could be a nice way of asking Congress to change the darn thing, for good….

This morning’s on-line edition of the Boston Globe summarizes the problem succintly:

It notes that  “the Obama administration attempted to walk a scientific and moral tightrope in its regulations, which allow scientists to work only with stem cells derived from donated embryos. The donors must give their explicit permission for scientific use of the embryos, typically stored at in vitro fertilization clinics.

“Even then, federal dollars cannot be used in the process of harvesting the cells; federal funds are limited to studying the cells after they have been extracted.

[Judge] “Lamberth ruled, in essence, that is a distinction without merit under a 1996 law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

“‘Had Congress intended to limit the Dickey-Wicker to only those discrete acts that result in the destruction of an embryo, like the derivation of [embryonic stem cells], or to research on the embryo itself, Congress would have written the statute that way,'” the judge concluded. “‘Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this court is bound to apply the law as it is written.'”

Recent polls show that the majority of Americans  are in favor of continuing human embryonic stem cell research. One wonders if sufficient public pressure and political support exists to change the amendment.

Les Lang

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