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Ideology Driving a Wedge in Stem Cell Debate

By Dr. Clark Hinderleider
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On 23 August 2010, in an indefensible overreach, a conservative Texan jurist appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia issued a temporary injunction that effectively blocked the 2009 Obama executive order expanding embryonic stem cell research. There was the expected display of outrage, but Lamberth refused to stay his order.  The US Court of Appeals for the D.C.Circuit issued an administration stay that nullified the Lamberth order, restoring the proper ranking of jurisprudence before politics.

This exercise was the use of a court process to preclude the scientific process. First, a bit of the history is needed. The challenge itself is predicated on fundamentalist religious demagoguery, as the original plaintiffs included the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization, and Nightlight Christian Adoptions, and two specifically selected, adult stem cell investigators, Theresa Deisher and James L. Sherley when initially filed last year.  However, Lamberth dismissed the suit saying the defendants lacked standing.  He was again overruled by the appeals court, and, with all the plaintiffs except Deisher and Sherley dropped, Lamberth issued the ruling that current policy violated the language of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. 

 Let’s review a few salient facts.  First, to correct the judge’s and others’ nescience of human embryology, the blastocysts used in generating embryonic stem cells are not “embryos.”  “Embryo” presumes implantation, which never occurs. This argument is made elsewhere and used during the Senate debate on S 5 in 2007.  In human embryogenesis, the proper term for this preimplantation blastocyst is “zygote.” The term “embryo” as defined in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment [Div D., § 509 (b), v.i.] was coined by politicians not scientists.  Second, the list of claimed “adult stem cell treatments” has been manufactured by David A. Prentice of the Family Research Council, a conservative, Christian right lobbying group with no documented experience in either science or research. If one examines this list, one finds it is mostly fraudulent containing citations which are not accurate and not supportive of what the proponents claim.  Some do not even pertain to stem cell research.  This has been noted by other scientists.  Smith, et al., comments on the issue directly, as does Hinderleider in his letter [BioPharm International, March 2007; 20(3):14.]  Smith states, “Prentice and those who repeat his claims mislead laypeople and cruelly deceive patients.  Definitely, Deisher and Sherley belong in the “those” category.

Finally, the investigators themselves need to be scrutinized.  These two were recruited as plaintiffs by attorneys seeking to challenge the federal policy, as Stephen H. Aden, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. Sherley has been vocal about his opposition to embryonic stem cell (ESC) research and was denied tenure at MIT; apparently his scholarship was wanting.  Deisher, an anti-abortion activist, states that she is being “disadvantaged” because she must compete for funding for her research, revealing a rather venal aspect to her opposition, even though she has never applied for government research funding.  Both state that their opposition to the ESC research is ethical not religious.  However, one must question this assertion as they both are currently allied with the religious right in the campaign to lobby Congress against such research.  Furthermore, if one searches for publications, one does not find any current, pertinent peer-reviewed papers, nor any academic, but only commercial, affiliations.

Federal regulation of embryonic stem cell research primarily consists of the Dickey amendment, the Department of Health and Human Services 1999 Opinion, the Obama executive order #13505 and the NIH 2009 Guidelines.  It should be noted that current federal law allows the discarding of IVF blastocysts no longer needed.

The inconsistencies in the arguments advanced by the opponents to ESC research are noted.

 In their testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services and Education, Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D, Director of the NIH; George Q. Daley, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Stem Cell Transplantation Program, Boston Children’s Hospital and other demonstrated masterfully why embryonic stem cell research must be continued, including the limitations of adult stem and iPS cells

 George J Annas, J.D., M.P.H., states, “[The] ruling...enjoining federal funding of stem cell research—...was based on his [Lamberth’s] reading of an amendment to an appropriations bill.” and sets forth his argument about Dickey-Wicker in court.

The Congressional Research Service report on “Stem Cell Research: Ethical and Legal Issues” can inform those who are nescient on the subject, which would include many members of the Congress.  A section on Sherley v. Sebelius is included.

 It is readily apparent, except to those blinded by ideology and religious zealotry that this entire exercise is not about ethics or law or scientific research but about the religious right’s continued attack on science and evidence-based medicine.

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  1. Kay


    I am grateful to see the use of the term "embryonic" debunked here. Why aren't more people saying this?

    And isn't it ironic: the rules the zealots foist upon us are suspended for in vitro fertilization, and the ideologues then have the gall to deny stem cell researchers access to the byproducts of in vitro.

    The vast majority of Americans support ZSCR. Can't we stop these people?

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