April 07, 2009

Analyzing Obama's Anti-Life Assault

By Father Thomas Berg *

President Barack Obama issued an executive order on March 9, 2009 which suspended the Bush administration policy on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and directed the National Institutes of Health to come up with a new set of regulations for that research within a period of 120 days. Much hailed as a major step toward what he described in his Inaugural Address as a pledge to "restore science to its rightful place," it was the center piece of the culture-of-death accomplishments of his first 60 days in office -- many of them aimed directly at the Catholic Church and attacking religious liberties in general.

Michael Gerson, former policy advisor and speechwriter for President George W. Bush, discovered a "common thread" running through Obama's pro-choice, anti-life agenda, namely,  "the coercion of those who disagree with it." Writing in The Washington Post on March 11, he continued:

Obama has begun providing federal funds for international groups that promote or perform abortions overseas. He has moved to weaken conscience protections for health-care professionals. And he has chosen the most radical possible option on the use of embryonic stem cells -- a free license for researchers, with boundaries set only by the National Institutes of Health.

Now, taxpayers are likely to fund not only research on the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization but also on human lives produced and ended for the sole purpose of scientific exploitation. Biotechnicians have been freed from the vulgar moralism of the masses, so they can operate according to the vulgar utilitarianism of their own social clique -- the belief that some human lives can be planted, plucked and processed for the benefit of others.


As Gerson rightly points out, the next steps would go beyond merely using spare IVF embryos.

Even some secular voices of those who up until now have supported embryo destructive research and the use of "left over" embryos are raising a red flag at the rapidly approaching specter of creating human embryos on demand for research purposes.  Among them, syndicated columnist and former member of the President's Council on Bioethics Charles Krauthammer -- who favors embryo-destructive research -- acknowledged  that the forthcoming NIH regulations will strive to open the door as broadly as possible to a create-and-kill or clone-and-kill regime of stem cell research.  He also rightly questioned Obama's blind faith in the ethical rectitude of those now involved in crafting the new regulations. Observed Krauthammer:

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Joseph Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

While those new regulations will almost certainly be aimed at eventually allowing the federal government to fund the direct creation and destruction of human embryos for research purposes by any means (in vitro fertilization and even human cloning), such a regulation would currently run afoul of the "Dickey-Wicker Amendment" (DWA) -- named after its original authors, former Representatives Jay Dickey of Arkansas and now-Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

DWA has been attached to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill every year since 1996. The provision reads as follows:

  • SEC. 510. (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 46.208(a)(2) 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.

For 12 years, DWA has effectively prohibited the use of federal funds to support any research that would endanger or destroy human embryos.  Since the days of the Clinton administration, in practice, the amendment has been interpreted as restricting federal funding for the research in which human embryos are actually created and destroyed. But -- as a loophole for stem cell research to move forward -- it was further interpreted as placing no restraints on research involving any stem cells that may result from such destruction.  In a word, for the past 12 years: no to using federal dollars to destroy embryos; yes to limited funding on what might arise from the destruction of those embryos (and under President Bush, funding for research only on the lines of embryonic stem cells produced prior to August 9, 2001).

So now that the Bush policy has been revoked, the funding of research involving embryonic stem cells from any source (not just from embryos destroyed prior to August 9, 2001) is now fair game:  whether those stem cells proceed from "spare" IVF embryos, or IVF embryos specially created just for research.
Most notably, however, the NIH now has free rein to arrange for funding stem cell research that depends on the special creation of "research embryos" and their destruction -- even though the actual creation/destruction would have to be accomplished with non-federal funding as long as DWA remains in place.  Which is to say, the President has essentially given the NIH an opportunity to develop plans for incentivizing the special creation of human embryos purely for research purposes (for example embryos that will be known carriers of genetic defects) by whatever means by offering enormous financial grants for stem cell research that depends directly on such embryos.  Of course, that could be streamlined all the more if DWA were not standing in the way.

So, it comes as no surprise that Diana DeGette (D-CO) is on record as indicating her intent to attack DWA legislatively. "Dickey-Wicker is 13 years old now," she recently told the New York Times, "and I think we need to review these policies."  She added, "I've already talked to several pro-life Democrats about Dickey-Wicker, and they seemed open to the concept of reversing the policy if we could show that it was necessary to foster this research."

 Nor should we be surprised that the journal Nature has joined in the attack. An editorial published in its March 26 issue aggressively advocates for rolling back DWA:

In force since 1996, the Dickey-Wicker amendment badly needs updating to fit the current research reality, if not outright repeal. But because it affects fewer researchers than did the funding restrictions on stem-cell research, scientists who spent hours in public outreach trying to overturn the stem-cell ban may well want to return to their labs, leaving this lower-profile law's implications unquestioned.

Such attitudes are understandable, but wrong. Both the Dickey-Wicker amendment and the new guidelines on human embryonic stem-cell research being drawn up by the National Institutes of Health merit an intense national conversation. In particular, that dialogue should thoroughly explore attitudes towards studying different types of embryos  --  not just those left over from fertility procedures, but also those that might be specially created for research.

Some might claim that the growing momentum to lift DWA is simply to ensure that federal funding can be made available for research on left over IVF embryos. Indeed, this is the express intent of bills (H.R. 873 and S. 487) that have recently been introduced in both the House and Senate.  Based on multiple conversations I have had with persons immersed in the stem cell field, however, I consider the expression of such intent to be a charade.  Society has already condoned the creation (and attendant waste) of human embryos to help infertile couples achieve pregnancy.  So once new legislation induces a majority of Americans to vouchsafe using those same left-over embryos to "help sick people," what moral argument will convince them that we should not create embryos solely for helping them as well? Rolling back DWA is about one thing above all: to open a legal pathway for the direct federal funding of the creation and destruction of human embryos for research, whether by in vitro fertilization, so-called "therapeutic cloning" or other means.  Let no one be fooled.


While I'm at it...

*   In addition to my monthly column, from now on I'll be tagging on a new section at the end --  "While I'm at it..." -- which will contain hopefully useful pieces of information and/or brief commentary in the spirit of the late Fr. Neuhaus' "While We're At It" section of First Things.

*    For background on Dickey-Wicker and the Bush rationale on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, see: http://www.bioethics.gov/background/es_moralfoundations.html

*   For background on how Obama's stem cell decision fits into a larger frontal attack on the Catholic Church and on religious liberties in general, see my recent article "Don't Know Nothing"  from March 26 in National Review  Online.  

*  The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (GW/SPHHS) has published a review of the current key issues resulting from the Obama executive order on stem cell research.  While heavy on pro-embryo-destructive rhetoric, it is nonetheless useful for information gathering especially about the legislative moves that are in the works on the Hill both to limit embryo-destructive research and others to strike down the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

*    Meanwhile, iPS cell research continues strong. In fact, notwithstanding the Obama executive order, it will continue to dominate the stem cell field for some time to come. Since January of this year there have been more than a dozen studies in human iPS cell research published in peer-reviewed journals.  In New York State, twenty awards totaling $16.3 million were made earlier this year by the Empire State Stem Cell Board for targeted investigation of iPS and other derivation approaches.

*    Meanwhile, in the past two and a half years, three ground-breaking clinical trials in the treatment of spinal cord injury with adult stem cells went virtually unnoticed in the press:

Published in the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine 29, 191-203, 2006: "Olfactory mucosa autografts in human spinal cord injury: a pilot clinical study." Carlos Lima, MD, José Pratas-Vital, MD, Pedro Escada, MD, Armando Hasse-Ferreira, MD, Clara Capucho, MD, and Jean D Peduzzi, PhD.
Published in Cell Transplantation 17, 1277-1293, 2008: "Administration of Autologous Bone Marrow Stem Cells Into Spinal Cord Injury Patients Via Multiple Routes Is Safe and Improves Their Quality of Life: Comprehensive Case Studies." L. F. Geffner, P. Santacruz, M. Izurieta, L. Flor, B. Maldonado, A. H. Auad,  X. Montenegro,  R. Gonzalez, and F. Silva.

Published online August 8, 2008 in the journal Brain: "Autologous olfactory ensheathing cell transplantation in human paraplegia: a 3-year clinical trial."
A. Mackay-Sim, F. Feron, J. Cochrane, L. Bassingthwaighte, C. Bayliss, W. Davies, P. Fronek, C. Gray, G. Kerr, P. Licina, A. Nowitzke, C. Perry, P.A.S. Silburn, S. Urquhart, T. Geraghty.

* Notwithstanding the on-going deliberate ignorance of such breakthroughs in adult stem cell research by the MSM, at least one reporter writing in the Associated Press, was willing to make this honest admission:  "For all the past week's headlines about embryonic stem cells' medical promise, there is a sobering reality: The science to prove that promise will take years, probably too long for many of today's seriously ill."

*    Without fanfare or anyone really noticing, Obama's executive order also abolished another previous Bush executive order. On June 20, 2007, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13435 which required that "The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall conduct and support research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, but are derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus."  Subsequently, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tasked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with the responsibility to develop a plan to implement the Executive Order.  The implementation plan can be found here.  At this point, two unanswered questions remain:  how much of this implementation was already underway when Bush's executive order was yanked, and will any of it continue?  Which actually prompts a third question: why would Obama put the kibosh on solid science?

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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