Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the question of whether federal taxpayer dollars can be used lawfully to destroy human embryos in order to harvest their stem cells. The case challenged regulations of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that allow the destruction of living human embryos originally created for in vitro fertilization to harvest their stem cells for laboratory research.
The U.S. government has poured roughly $1 billion of our tax money into human embryonic stem cell research over the past 10 years, most of it during the past four years. The current White House has upped the incentives for the destruction of human embryos, all the while intentionally ignoring the plain meaning of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment — the federal law banning such research — effectively opening the door to destructive experimentation on human subjects.
The Dickey-Wicker Amendment has been passed by Congress every year since 1996. The key phrase says that no federal funds can be used for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” During the 1996 House floor debate, a sponsor affirmed the life-saving purpose of the law by saying:
“The supporters of the amendment claim that this funding will be used only to do experiments on ‘spare’ embryos that would be discarded anyway. We, as a Congress, have already addressed this question. In 1985, Congress was made aware of abuses in some NIH research programs. These programs were conducting risky experiments on unborn children who were scheduled for abortions. At that time we wisely enacted a law insisting that federally funded research should treat these children the same as children intended for live birth. This law protects human embryos in the womb at every stage and is still in effect today. There is no reason that it should not be extended to protect human embryonic children outside the womb.”
Congress clearly intended human embryos (even those considered “spares” in petri dishes) to be treated in federally funded research with no greater risk of harm or death than human subjects at the fetal stage intended for live birth.
Yet embryonic stem cell research relies on the utter destruction of every human embryo from which such stem cells are derived — usually a great many embryos to get just a single dish of stem cells. Without embryo destruction, there are no embryonic stem cells. The reason for this destruction is developing “potential cures” for all known maladies. After more than 30 years of this research, however, not even many lab mice have benefited from embryonic stem cells and there is no proven success with human embryonic stem cells in patients.
Even in practical terms, embryonic stem cells are the least likely types of stem cells to help patients. Their characteristic nature for continual growth means that they are much more likely to form tumors than to form healthy tissue. In fact, embryonic stem cells risk the lives and health of those who are injected with them.
Ethical alternatives exist. The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was given recently to Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who developed a way to turn ordinary cells into stem cells with all the properties of embryonic stem cells by adding a few genes, all without destroying a single human life. Adult stem cells remain the gold standard when it comes to helping patients. The first transplants using whole bone marrow were performed decades ago, but it took many years for these transplants to be accepted for their therapeutic successes. Today, adult stem cell transplants remain the only documented successful uses of stem cells for patients, validated by hundreds of published, peer-reviewed scientific articles.
Obtaining adult stem cells from the tissues of a patient or a healthy donor does not require harming or destroying the adult stem cell donor. That gives adult stem cells a distinct ethical advantage over embryonic stem cells. More than 60,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells, and there are increasing published successes for numerous cancers, spinal cord injuries, heart damage, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, windpipe problems and many other conditions (see www.stemcellresearchfacts.org).
This makes it all the more disappointing that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case. Meanwhile, the lower courts are concluding that they have no choice but to “defer” to the National Institutes of Health’s strained “interpretation” of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that one dissenting judge called “linguistic jujitsu,” and the NIH says was compelled by President Obama’s executive order directing this research. In fact, that order is expressly limited to supporting and conducting only “responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research to the extent permitted by law.”
Embryonic stem cell research is neither “responsible” nor “scientifically worthy” because it demonstrably wastes taxpayer dollars. Of even greater concern, this research wastes the lives of our youngest human beings and the hopes of patients waiting for the “cures” that embryonic stem cell researchers promise but can’t deliver. Adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells, save lives.
While the battle in court is over for now, the litigation challenging the National Institutes of Health regulations (which actually began in 1999, when the Clinton administration first proposed them) gave adult stem cell scientists a legitimate and practical reason to refuse to conduct destructive embryonic and fetal stem cell research. This allows them to focus solely on adult stem cells without damage to their careers. As a consequence, adult stem cell research is now advancing with good signs of scientific and medical progress, while embryonic and fetal stem cell proponents have been effectively shown for what they are: ethically and scientifically wrong in their claims.
Sadly, nothing can be done about ending federal taxpayer funding of unethical and wasteful human embryo research unless and until Congress fixes the “ambiguity” that the lower courts claim exists in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Congress will at least need to consider changing the phrase “research in which” to “research involving,” and the phrase “are destroyed” to “are or have been destroyed.” Hopefully, Congress will do so, along with any other steps deemed necessary to once again make plainly unlawful the federal funding of unnecessary, wasteful, destructive human embryo research.
David Prentice is senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council and adjunct professor of molecular genetics at the John Paul II Institute. Samuel B. Casey, general counsel of the Jubilee Campaign’s Law of Life Project, served as co-counsel for plaintiff adult stem cell researchers in Sherley et al. v. Sebelius et al.