A crazy judge throws out Obama's stem-cell policy—and Bush's.
I never thought I'd say this, but I'm starting to miss George W. Bush.
"Compassionate conservatism" has been overtaken by the Tea Party. El sueño Americano has given way to anti-immigrant fever. The "war on terror" has degenerated into a backlash against American Muslims. Now, even Bush's stem-cell policy has been overturned as too permissive.
The stem-cell ruling, issued Monday by U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, says that federal funding of research using cells derived from destroyed embryos violates federal law. Pro-lifers are ecstatic. "Court Strikes Down Obama Administration Stem Cell Policy," crows Americans United for Life. "A stinging rebuke to the Obama Administration," gloats the Family Research Council. A defeat for "the Obama administration's rabid and unscientific fixation" on embryo destruction, says the American Life League.
But this ruling goes way beyond Obama. It voids Bush's stem-cell policy, too. And it does so on flimsy grounds with sloppy reasoning.
The ruling relies on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a provision enacted by Congress every year during federal appropriations. The amendment, first adopted in 1996, bans federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed." Lamberth concludes:
[Embryonic stem cell] research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed. To conduct ESC research, ESCs must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ESCs from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus, ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo. Despite defendants' attempt to separate the derivation of ESCs from research on the ESCs, the two cannot be separated. Derivation of ESCs from an embryo is an integral step in conducting ESC research.
Accordingly, Lamberth blocks federal funding of all such research pending a full trial. He says this injunction will "simply preserve the status quo." But the status quo, under Bush, permitted federal funding of research on ESC lines derived by Aug. 9, 2001. There's no way that policy could survive Lamberth's ruling. The cell lines approved by Bush were just as dependent on embryo destruction as the cell lines approved by Obama.
In fact, Lamberth's definition of "research"—incorporating all prior steps on which present studies depend—would jeopardize lots of other work. Current research on hypothermia, asthma, schizophrenia, hepatitis, radiation exposure, gene therapy, and sexually transmitted diseases relies, to varying degrees, on prior experiments that were deemed illegal or unethical. Are scientists who work in these fields responsible for the sins of their predecessors? Should we declare their work "research in which" Jews, blacks, children, and others are victimized? Do we seriously think that Congress, in using the word "research," intended such retroactive complicity?
Lamberth notes that Congress "has not altered" the Dickey Amendment since it was first enacted. But in 2005, the House, by a vote of 238-194, passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which authorized HHS to "conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells." A year later, the Senate passed the same bill, 63-37. Both houses again approved this language in the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which passed the Senate 63-34 and the House 247-176.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of George W. Bush by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.