Reprieve for Embryonic Research Contradicts Previous Ruling
By Andrew Kaake '14
Last Thursday, a federal appeals court in the Washington D.C. circuit issued a reprieve to those receiving federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. This rather directly contradicts the ruling by Federal Judge Royce C. Lambert, which plainly stated that the funding was made illegal by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Dickey-Wicker outlawed federal funding for anything that destroyed human embryos, and this decision seems clear-cut. Why, then, did this reprieve get issued, and why does this case matter in the first place?

I can’t help but wonder what was going through the minds of the judges on the D.C. District Appeals Court. Judge Lambert issued an injunction to immediately end government spending on embryonic stem cell research, and what do they do? Oh, that’s right, they assume that the lower judge was wrong and reinstate funding while they consider the case. It seems a little odd to me that a panel of judges would continue to allow an activity that another judge declared illegal on very plain grounds. In fact, this is transforming “innocent until proven guilty” into “innocent after proven guilty, unless the Supreme Court was the ruling panel.” Then again, it was the Obama administration that appealed the injunction in the first place, and it falls completely in line with its current economic policy: spend until there’s nothing left, then borrow from our children and the Chinese. The money should not be flowing until and unless the appeals court overturns the decision, which seems somewhat unlikely.

At the same time, Congressional Democrats are raising up arms to attempt another passing of a bill legalizing embryonic research. Similar bills were passed twice during the Bush administration but were vetoed successfully both times (interesting side note: Bush did not veto funding for embryos harvested before he took office). The passage of such a law would, in essence, entirely nullify and circumvent this entire court case, since it would revoke Dickey-Wicker. Right now, the Democrats still have enough political clout to shove a bill through on purely partisan lines, but polls indicate that this will probably not be the case after November. The bottom line: unless the Democrats act fast, this bill idea will go nowhere.

Really, though, why would anyone want to impede scientific progress by opposing embryonic stem cell research? Probably because it’s not really necessary. There are many other sources of stem cells of various kinds that don’t require the killing of a human embryo. These sources include amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord and adult stem cells.

There are two main arguments for embryonic research over adult cell research. First, scientists have stated that the embryonic cells are less specialized and can therefore be more useful in a greater number of ways. This is kind of true — embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into almost any cell type, while adult cells are typically multipotent, meaning they can only produce a few different types. However, all of those types can be procured by the harvesting of adult stem cells from such sources as bone marrow. Furthermore, there have been experiments in which adult stem cells were manipulated to become pluripotent, which promises a new avenue of research that is embryo-free. The second argument is that researchers use mostly vitro embryos that are unwanted and unused, and would otherwise be discarded. This is not typically the case: in vitro clinics do not usually dispose of embryos, but try to store them, give them to the progenitors or even put them up for adoption. In the cases where the embryos are destroyed, there are sometimes even funerals held for the undeveloped babies. Somehow, the scientists-against-waste scenario is made less likely by this simple examination of the facts.

Now, let’s attempt to synthesize the three aspects of the situation — judicial, political and scientific — to reach a meaningful conclusion about this court case. In the political realm, the basic thought is to legislate research that is supposed to be in the best interest of the people. However, that view will soon not be able to be forced through without a debate, and there is no guarantee where the chips will land in the aftermath of such a conflict. Judicially, this seems to be a case of judicial activism hampering judicial restraint. Judge Lambert is actually exercising his constitutional authority to review conflicting legislation, while the Circuit Court of Appeals is pushing through an agenda. Ironically, the judges have made it very clear that their reprieve isn’t an endorsement of the pro-embryonic supporters, who very well may lose their appeal, as well. Finally, science is really making a mountain out of a molehill with this issue. There is plenty to research with adult stem cells, which are already much more highly funded. Scientists don’t need a silver bullet that is a cure-all for every disease, but they are seeking it and ignoring the possible pack of cures that lies in adult stem cell research. This reprieve is wrong and probably pointless, but the truth is that this case is really just a line-item attack on a practice that needs a lot of sunlight and public debate.

Issue 02, Submitted 2010-09-20 20:17:31