One little problem for Obama: Dickey Amendment

The other day I posted about President Obama’s executive order on March 9 overturning restrictions on embryonic stem cell research put in place by former President Bush. In it, I said that Obama had carefully constructed his words to allow for the scientific destruction of embyos (killing of humans) for research.

A reader pointed out that, two days later, Obama signed an omnibus spending bill containing a clause which seemed in direct contradiction with his executive order. Like others, I wondered what this meant since the president’s words on March 9 were explicit about where he stood.

After his press conference last night, when he was asked about stem cell research he seemed ready to leave the issue to scientists — that is, those who are strongly in the embryonic stem cell research corner. What is clear is that, despite his words, the only thing he’s wrestled with is on this issue is with what political constituency he wants to keep his allegiances .

The complicating part is the Dickey amendment, which was part of the Omnibus bill. Found of page 280 of the bill, its says:

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 46.204(b) and section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 289g(b)).

(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 as of the date of the enactment of this Act, that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid cells.

The White House said the  amendment, which has been in appropriations bills since 1996, only means that federal funds can’t be used for the killing of embryos, it can still be used for research on embryos that are killed with private funds. Others, however, say that it’s not that simple. Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, told the White House is too narrowly defining the amendment:

It does not merely say you can’t use federal funds to kill an embryo, it’s much broader than that. It says the federal government can’t fund research in which embryos are harmed. We should interpret that to mean the federal government can’t fund any research project if that project involves or requires harm to human embryos.

It is not consistent with the Dickey amendment for NIH to say, ‘OK, we’re going to approve this study, which involves taking 100 embryos out of the freezer in some in vitro lab and killing them and taking their stem cells, and using their stem cells in the federally funded study, and by the way, we’re going to pay for all of that, and we approve it in advance. The only part we’re not going to pay for is the part where you kill the embryo.’ That’s not what the Dickey amendment says.

And, because there is this doubt out there and actual law is at stake, Congress has already started acting on the possibility of repealing Dickey. Already this month, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said lawmakers may look at passing a stem cell research bill before the April 4 recess. You can bet that getting rid of Dickey will be part of that measure, as Colorado Democrat Diana Degette told the N.Y. Times that they will look at how Dickey restricts research. In other words, it would mean the government could once and for all pour money into research that kills humans for the sake of science. Again, Josef Mengele would approve.

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