Why science should welcome Lamberth stem cell decision

The problem could be gone by October 1, but the law which resulted in this ruling was stupid to begin with and there is a lesson in that.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

There has been much consternation over the decision of Judge Royce Lamberth (right from Wikipedia) to block stem cell research.

In fact scientists should be cheering, because what we have here is a teachable moment.

Lamberth based his ruling on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an appropriations rider first passed in 1995, long before stem cell research had proven its value.

It was named for an Arkansas Republican (now lobbyist) Jay Dickey and Mississippi Republican (now Senator) Roger Wicker.

It was passed during the "Contract with America" Congress, and was one of a number of bills aimed at placating various Republican interests, in this case social conservatives.

The rider was forgotten starting in 1999, when an attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services decided it didn't apply to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was then (supposedly) superseded by a Bush Administration decision in 2001 to allow limited funding on a few lines of stem cells. President Obama "overturned" that decision last year, allowing expanded research.

Only what Judge Lamberth is saying here is, "no you didn't." His ruling, in fact, overturns even President Bush's 2001 order. All U.S. government funding for research on embryonic stem cells is halted by the preliminary injunction. The NIH has already complied while the decision is appealed.

So how is this good news? Two reasons.

  1. Dickey-Wicker is an appropriations rider. It has to be passed every year to remain effective. This Congress has done, without giving it much thought, but now the problem can simply go away by Congress not re-authorizing it, or the President vetoing a bill containing such a re-authorization. The "problem" could be gone by October 1.
  2. Dickey-Wicker was a stupid law to begin with. It was passed in ignorance, based on religious prejudice, and even conservative Republicans have since rejected its premise.

Asian countries are already taking advantage of the Lamberth decision. Stem cells are now proven technology. The plaintiffs in this case were trying to gain a monopoly for themselves (working only with adult stem cells) in this area of research. The "harm" they claimed was competition for grants.

It's true that there has been successful research done with adult stem cells. There is hope for treatments in the areas of Huntington's Disease, Parkinson's, even depression.

But that doesn't mean research should be restricted based on one group's religion or morality. Nebraska is still reeling from an effort last year to step away from the Obama policy and go back to that of Bush (which as I note has now been overturned).

Science has created a multi-billion dollar industry around stem cell research and cures, since the Dickey-Wicker amendment was passed. At a time of 10% unemployment Americans are not going to turn their backs on that.

The lesson should be clear. Don't pass laws against research when you don't know what the result might be. You are displaying ignorance and neo-Luddism when you do that, and voters should take note. Willful ignorance needs to pay a political price.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards