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Right Wing Forces Assault Embryonic Stem Cell Research
On August 23rd, the Chief Judge Royce Lambert from the U.S. District Court for Washington D.C., issued a ruling stopping all federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. At the time of this writing, Lambert's ruling has itself been temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court - but everyone agrees that nothing is settled and extremely important questions involving science and religion are being pushed onto the stage once again. The heart of Lambert's ruling is based on the Dickey-Wicker amendment that precludes federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”.
The Obama administration made it one of its key points during its election campaign to repudiate the anti-science policies of Bush, in particular around stem cells. This court decision shows how much influence Christian fundamentalist dogma still has in American political institutions, including the judiciary.
That dogma, which lies at the heart of Dickey-Wicker, states that there is something sacred about the fertilized human egg (i.e. the blastocyst, a clump of cells about the size of the period that ends this sentence), that it should be treated as a full human, which should set a barrier to important scientific and medical research, as well as abortions, medical treatment, etc.
What is at stake here is both the immediate and terrible practical impact of Lambert's ruling, and a fundamental assault on science. If Lambert's ruling ultimately carries the day, it will have a devastating impact on stem cell research and possibly sabotage potential cures for many devastating medical conditions. Beyond that, it is part of a broader continuing attempt to constrain science under the yoke of Christian fundamentalist ideology.
Immediate Impact of the Ruling
Judge Lambert's ruling was temporarily blocked, but key Federal funders of stem cell research had already announced major cuts in funding, and the Appeals Court decision blocking Lambert's ruling now leaves things in a state of uncertainty - stem cell research cannot just be turned off and on. Lambert's ruling has already caused immense wide-spread harm to stem cell research and other medical research as well.
Before the Appeals court stay, the National Institute of Health had announced that it was cutting off all new stem cell funding, and that all federally funded experiments already underway will be cut off when they come for renewal.
NIH Director Francis Collins said 50 requests for new funding that were being assessed were “pulled out of the stack” - another dozen requests totaling $15-20 million that had already gone through full review and according to him likely to have been approved are now frozen. And next month, 22 grants totaling about $54 million that would be up for renewal will be just cut off.
There are 199 other grants already granted worth about $131 million that are not yet impacted but of those 143 worth nearly $95 million would be up for renewal and face cut-off.
A recent N.Y. Times article gives a small glimpse at the scope and severity of this on human knowledge and health:
“Among the projects financed with this money is research by Dr. Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, to find a cure for juvenile diabetes. His two children — a 19-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter — have the disease. Both must inject themselves with insulin, and he said they frequently ask about his work.
“Another study that is likely to be delayed is a clinical test of human embryonic stem cells in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Lorenz Studer, director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Stem Cell Biology, said that after 10 years of work, he was on the cusp of putting the cells in people.”
The impact on medical research could extend even beyond direct embryonic stem cell research.
“Beyond human embryonic stem cell studies, research on vaccines, viruses and lung disease could also be affected, experts said, because cells commonly used in such research were derived from either aborted fetuses or destroyed embryos.”
The Plaintiffs and Their Arguments - an Attack on Stem Cell Science and Beyond That, On Peer-Reviewed Science In General
The legal case that Lambert ruled on was based on the dubious claim that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research meant that adult stem cell research would lose funding. Commentators have pointed out that this is not in fact the case. Beyond that, and more essentially, from a scientific perspective, both embryonic and adult stem cells are areas of active, broad and often complementary research. Each type of stem cell has differing characteristics making them more or less suitable for various areas of research and potential therapies. And there have been recent initial promising advances reported in stimulating and inducing some adult stem cells to behave with more of the pluripotent flexibility of embryonic stem cells. But those driving this right-wing attack on embryonic stem cell science try to claim that embryonic stem cell research is not only “immoral” (from the viewpoint of their twisted ideology) but also “not needed” and can and should be replaced entirely by adult stem cells. This is simply not the case and in fact there is clear consensus that embryonic stem cells are the “gold standard” for stem cell research for pluripotency and differentiation. (see for example this article in The Scientist http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54749/ )
Beyond this, there is additional danger involved in this court decision. The following statement by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology criticizing this ruling makes this very important additional point (that has not been yet widely reported) about the intrusion of right-wing extremist ideological agendas into the heart of peer-reviewed science, warning that:
“... this ruling strikes directly at the heart of the peer-review process used to identify the best scientific proposals. Allowing the judicial system to determine the merits of particular types of research based on an argument of competitive disadvantage is a blatant disregard of the expert-based system that is the gold standard of scientific review. Funding of basic biomedical research is not a zero-sum game in which particular lines of research are supported at the expense of others; rather, the system has evolved so that each proposal is evaluated on both its merits and its future benefits for easing the burden of disease. see http://www.asbmb.org/News.aspx?id=9348
Even Worse Than the Bush Years
If Lambert's ruling holds it suppresses research way beyond the limitations on stem cell research that were in place during the Bush years. During those years, stem cell research was subject to a two-prong form of governmental suppression:
- first at the presidential level through executive orders
- second via federal restrictions on funding from congress (the Dickey-Wicker amendment).
Under Bush's executive order, federally funded embryonic stem cell research was confined to 78 existing stem cell lines. Of those, only about 20 lines were even usable. Some were duplicates. Some weren't available to license. Some were dead, and others too difficult to work with.
Now even research on those lines approved under Bush would be cut.
The History and Role of Dickey-Wicker
The Dickey-Wicker amendment is a rider attached to congressional bills (usually appropriation bills) which precludes the NIH from funding any stem cell "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death”. This amendment has been attached by Congress every year since 1995 to appropriation bills, hanging as a constant threat to stem cell research. Up until now it has largely been kept in the background – never directly voted on, not directly invoked - but always there – as federal law threatening stem cell research. Here we are in the 21st century and we have Christian extremism setting the terms for what science can investigate, what is “moral” and “ethical”. This law “enshrines” (pun intended) Christian fundamentalist norms putting them in a position to control and suppress science.
It is in fact, the height of immorality and lack of ethics to deny thousands of people suffering from potentially curable diseases the needed medical research to bring these cures and therapies to the light of day.
And beyond the medical and therapeutic importance of embryonic stem cell research, the National Academy of Sciences report “Understanding Stem Cells” made this point about the overall importance to science of stem cell research:
"Stem cells offer opportunities for scientific advances that go far beyond regenerative medicine. They offer a window for addressing many of biology’s most fundamental questions. Watching embryonic
stem cells give rise to specialized cells is like peeking into the earliest development of the many tissues and organs of the human body. Stem cell research may help clarify the role genes play in human
development and how genetic mutations affect normal processes. They can be used to study how infectious agents invade and attack human cells, to investigate the genetic and environmental factors
that are involved in cancer and other diseases, and to decipher what happens during aging."
But now with Lambert's decision, Dickey-Wicker has moved to front and center, as the central legal basis to shut all this down.
The Obama administration reversed Bush's executive order replacing it with their own executive order which to some degree opened up stem cell research, within very careful limits.
But until now they have refused to put up any fight against the congressional law, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, even refusing to take a position on Dickey-Wicker. A New York Times article from March, 2009 “Obama Is Leaving Some Stem Cell Issues to Congress” reveals how Obama has tried to finesse and triangulate on this issue, frankly pandering to extremist right-wing opposition to stem cell research. His position on this has never changed:
Mr. Obama has not taken a position on the ban and does not intend to, Melody C. Barnes, his chief domestic policy adviser, said Sunday. The president believes stem cell research "should be done in compliance with federal law," she said, adding that Mr. Obama recognizes the divisiveness of the issue. "We are committed to pursuing stem cell research quite responsibly but we recognize there are a range of beliefs on this," she said.
Judge Lambert's court ruling has taken many by surprise. It has sharply revealed the in-roads that Christian Fundamentalist anti-science thinking has made in the court system and in society generally - as well as the fact that these forces are actively going after science now. In summary this is a major assault on science and scientific thinking. There have been some important statements from the scientific community on this so far - there need to be many more.
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