TIME TO BE HONEST ABOUT EMBRYO RESEARCH

Dena S. Davis, J.D., Ph.D

 
In July President Obama signed an executive order lifting some restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. This momentous occasion has a shadow upon it: the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Dickey-Wicker ought to be jettisoned because it is a cynical insult to people who believe that embryos are human beings that ought not to be destroyed under any circumstances. 
 
Passed in 1995, Dickey-Wicker declares that public funds cannot be used to do research that destroys human embryos. This would have strangled all publicly funded human embryo stem cell research, were it not for a clever save by DHHS’s legal counsel. DHHS interpreted Dickey-Wicker to mean that publicly funded researchers could not themselves destroy embryos to harvest their stem cells, but could work with stem cells that had been harvested with private funds elsewhere. This distinction permitted research to continue largely unabated, until President Bush’s 2001 executive order prohibiting the use of public funds for stem cell lines not already in existence on the day of his announcement.  It is this scientifically onerous restriction that President Obama has recently lifted. 
 
An executive order, however, can be overturned easily by the next administration, so there is serious interest in Congress in passing more durable legislation that would parallel the President’s initiative. Some members of Congress are even willing to put Dickey-Wicker back on the table. Congress ought to repeal Dickey-Wicker and allow publicly funded scientists the greatest latitude to do the research that we hope will cure disease and save human lives. 
 
Another reason to revisit Dickey-Wicker is to deal respectfully and frankly with those who oppose embryo research. The rationale behind the Amendment is that, although embryo research is unrestricted in the private sector, it will not be done publicly with taxpayer’s money, thus relieving pro-life citizens of the burden of paying for something they find morally abhorrent. This is smoke and mirrors. If it is abhorrent to participate in embryo destruction by paying for it with one’s taxes, it is equally abhorrent to support research on stem cells that can only be obtained by embryo destruction. We insult the intelligence and moral commitment of our pro-life colleagues and neighbors when we say, “Don’t worry—we aren’t using your money to destroy embryos for their stem cells, we’re just using it to do research on stem cells from embryos that were destroyed in a lab across the street."
 
Pro-life citizens deserve better than this offensive spin. After eight years of the most secretive and slanted administration in history, our country has once again embraced the value of transparency. After decades of “culture wars,” we are trying to encourage a religious pluralism that respects the positions even of those with whom we disagree. Congress should overturn Dickey-Wicker because it is dishonest. Putting Dickey-Wicker back on the table will allow us to have an honest and robust national discussion about research with human embryos.
 
Dena S. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law
 
Dena S. Davis teaches bioethics at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and was a member of the AAAS working group on stem cell policy. Her most recent book is Genetic Dilemmas: Reproductive Technology, Parental Choices, and Children’s Futures. Davis is a member of the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Working Group. The opinions expressed are the views of the author(s) and do not represent any postition or policy of the National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Services or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.