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Federal Stem Cell Research Funding: Why You Need to Know About the Dickey Amendment

In an attempt to stop the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, two researchers sued the Obama Administration saying that the administration’s funding of research that requires the destruction of a human embryo violates the Dickey Amendment. Unfortunately, while a lower court agreed that using tax-payer money to fund embryonic stem cell research is in conflict with the Dickey Amendment, higher courts have not agreed, and today the Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case. So for now the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research continues.

But what is the Dickey Amendment, anyway? Why does everyone refer to it when discussing the battle over embryonic stem cell research?

The Dickey Amendment, also known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, is a very, very important piece of federal legislation inside the Omnibus Appropriations Act that states:

SEC. 509. (a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for–
(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR 46.208(a)(2) and Section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act [1](42 U.S.C. 289g(b)) (Title 42, Section 289g(b), United States Code).

(b) For purposes of this section, the term “human embryo or embryos” includes any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46 (the Human Subject Protection regulations) . . . that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes (sperm or egg) or human diploid cells (cells that have two sets of chromosomes, such as somatic cells).

Why is this little bit of a much larger piece of legislation so very important? Let’s start with some history.

In 2001, President Bush, allowed federal funds to be used for research on human embryonic stem cells.  Bush was the first president to allow tax-payer dollars to fund human embryonic stem cell research, but these funds were restricted to research on human embryonic stem cell lines created before August of that year.  Contrary to popular belief, Bush’s executive order order did not outlaw embryonic stem cell research nor eliminate funding altogether. It simply meant that from that point forward no federal tax dollars could not be used to fund the research on stem cell lines created by newly destroyed human embryos. Bush’s policy was a compromise to allow some funding on existing embryonic stem cell lines without violating the Dickey Amendment.

Once elected, President Obama overturned Bush’s funding restriction. Suddenly, our tax dollars could go to research on new cell lines created by ripping open human embryos. Obama’s executive order only allowed funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines created from embryos left over from IVF treatments. Since federal funds still cannot go to fund research that creates or destroys human embryos thanks to the Dickey Amendment, with federal money researchers cannot destroy the embryos themselves. Instead, they can use federal money to work with embryonic cell lines created elsewhere by destroying embryos.

Theresa Deisher, co-founder of the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, and James L. Sherley, a biological engineer at Boston Biomedical Research Institute claim that their research is negatively impacted by the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. They sued the Obama Administration saying that its funding policy violated the Dickey Amendment.

Initially the courts agreed. In the decision, Judge Lamberth wrote:

“If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an E.S.C. research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,”

Lamberth’s ruling was overturned by a higher court and the Supreme Court has now refused to hear the case.

Because the Dickey Amendment is seen as the fly in the embryonic stem cell research ointment, newspaperslawmakers and scientists have called for the Dickey Amendment to be overturned. That would clear the way for unfettered money to all kinds of embryo-destructive research. If the Dickey Amendment is overturned our tax dollars can go to fund embryo farms where human life is created and destroyed as a research tool for scientists. It would also allow the federal government (that means you and your tax dollars) to fund the cloning of human embryos for use in research.

Think that the worst would never happen? Think there is no way that our tax dollars would go to Frankenstein-like experiments if the Dickey Amendment fell by the wayside?

Well, remember the scientists in Massachusetts who created human embryos cloned with cow, rabbit and mouse eggs in an attempt to harvest patient-specific embryonic stem cells? One could argue that the creation of human-bovine, human-rabbit, and human-mouse embryos clearly falls under the umbrella of stem cell research since obtaining embryonic stem cells was the goal.

And what about the scientists in New York that purposefully created embryos with the genetic disorder triploidy in an attempt to harvest embryonic stem cells? The work was funded by the New York Stem Cell Foundation and was called a “landmark finding” in stem cell research. Might that not qualify for federal funding of “stem cell research” as well?

Even the scientists in Oregon that recently created three-parent embryos lament that restrictions on the federal funding of their work are “standing in their way” of bringing the three-parent embryo to the clinic to “test the procedure in women.” I am sure the funding restriction they refer to is the Dickey Amendment.

Unlike other countries, the United States has no federal laws regulating the creation, manipulation and destruction of human life for research purposes. All we have is a law against funding such research. This means that the research is allowed, we just don’t have to pay for it. But that funding restriction is still important. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is the last impediment to a government-funded Brave New World where human life is created, manipulated and destroyed in the name of science. A very important little piece of legislation indeed.

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.