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Obama Signs Law Restricting Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

A mere two days after supposedly reversing President Bush’s restrictions on the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, President Obama today signed into law a ban on the use of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, therefore, legislative restrictions have not been reversed.

Without any publicity or fanfare whatsoever, and in a move that counteracts and contradicts his highly publicized action a mere two days earlier, President Obama today signed a law that bans the federal funding of any procedure that involves either the creation or the destruction of a human embryo for research purposes. Since the process by which embryonic stem cells are extracted from an embryo results in the immediate destruction of that embryo, such a law makes the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on human embryos, and the derivation of new human embryonic stem cell lines from those embryos, illegal.

The specific piece of legislation under consideration is the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which was first signed into law in 1995 under the Clinton Administration. It is this Amendment which remains the primary legislative “obstacle” to embryonic stem cell research – not the comparatively trivial funding restraints which Obama overturned two days earlier and which were mistakenly interpreted by many to represent a grand, sweeping change in national policy; in actuality, the only policy that Obama was able to change two days ago was an increase in the applicability of federal funds to a few hundred human embryonic stem cell lines, instead of to the approximately 21 human embryonic stem cell lines that were already created prior to President Bush’s Executive Order on August 9th of 2001.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment was included today in the 465-page Omnibus spending bill that will fund government agencies through September 30th of this year, which is the end of the fourth quarter of the 2009 fiscal year (FY09). As the Amendment specifically states, “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.” Since the extraction of embryonic stem cells from an embryo results in the immediate destruction of that embryo, as already explained, such language pertains directly to the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines.

It is the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines, however, that embryonic stem cell scientists covet the most, not the authorization to spend federally awarded grant money on already existing human embryonic stem cell lines. In regard to the creation of new human embryonic stem cell lines, President Obama has changed nothing, nor does he have the power to change this law by himself since only Congress, not the president, can overturn such an Amendment. Not surprisingly, some members of Congress are actively mobilizing their efforts to do exactly that. Nevertheless, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment only applies to the use of federal money, not to the use of private (non-taxpayer) money, so it is still perfectly legal, as it has always been, to create and destroy as many human embryos as one wants, as long as it is done with private (non-taxpayer-derived) funding.

Named after its authors, Representatives Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was originally passed in 1995 under the Clinton Administration as a rider attached to the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services, and Congress has actively voted to renew the Amendment every year since then, although that could change by the end of this year. To reiterate, it was President Bill Clinton who signed this Amendment into law, not President George W. Bush, who merely inherited it.

At least until September 30th of this year, therefore, it will still be illegal to spend federal funding (i.e., NIH grant money, which comes directly from the U.S. taxpayer) on any human embryonic stem cell research that involves newly created human embryonic stem cell lines, since, by necessity, the creation of such stem cell lines requires the destruction of the human embryos from which the cells are derived.

Democratic Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado and Republican Representative Mike Castle of Delaware, who twice failed to overturn Bush’s funding restrictions, are now trying to pass legislation to repeal the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Similarly, an editorial in The New York Times on Tuesday called for Congress to repeal the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, but opposition still remains strong.

According to Douglas Johnson, spokeman for the National Right to Life Committee, “This sets the stage for an attack on the Dickey-Wicker law. Any member of Congress who votes for legislation to repeal this law is voting to allow federal funding of human embryo farms, created through the use of human cloning.” In his highly publicized and widely applauded though generally misunderstood speech on Monday, Obama assured people who have ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research that his policy is designed so that it “never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction”, which he described as “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society or any society.” However, the overturning of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment would be seen by many as a slippery slope that would inevitably lead not only to cloning but also to a number of other consequences that would be “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong”, to use Obama’s own words.

Nevertheless, only Congress, not the president, can overturn the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which still remains in effect as the law, at least until September 30th of this year. Contrary to popular misconception, therefore, President Obama has not entirely reversed the legislative policies that he seems to be credited with reversing, and which he inherited from his predecessor – who, in turn, inherited the Dickey-Wicker Amendment from his predecessor, President Bill Clinton.

One can only marvel at how and why Obama happened to legalize the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research on Monday, while surrounded by carefully orchestrated applause and fanfare, and then immediately perform an about-face a mere 2 days later and ban human embryonic stem cell research on Wednesday, without any reporters or television cameras present and with no fanfare whatsoever.

(Please see the related news article on this website, entitled, “Obama Decrees Changes in Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Though Not What One Might Expect”, dated March 9, 2009).

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