In reading up on Obama’s stem cell decision, I got confused about what exactly it does. This line, in particular, confused me (from the WSJ):
Huh? Wasn’t that Bush’s policy too? This may be common knowledge to everyone but me. But just in case anyone else was confused, here’s a basic rundown of legal landscape (most details come from this CRS report, via the most awesome OpenCRS):
In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to destroy embryos (which is of course what happens when you remove stem cells). In 1999, Clinton’s HHS got around this ban by interpreting “embryo” as excluding already-created embryonic stem cells.
The upshot was that while federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research, they couldn’t be used to obtain those cells in the first place. My guess, though, is that most labs could do some fancy accounting (e.g., making sure extraction is covered by “non-federal” funds), and conduct as much research as they wanted.
Congressional Republicans, however, weren’t exactly thrilled with the HHS interpretation. And so when the Decider retreated to a Zen-like meditative state to contemplate these weighty issues, he came up with a “compromise.” Bush allowed funding for a few cell lines that had already been created. But he banned funding for any stem cell lines created after August 2001. He claimed there were about 60 lines at the time, but 58 of those turned out to be bread mold I think.
Anyway, that’s what Obama’s order presumably will do – the federal government will be able to fund research on any already-created stem cell lines, regardless of when they were created. Maybe science wonks can jump in – but that’s probably all that research labs need. The Dickey Amendment doesn’t seem like a big obstacle to me.
That said, it’s still probably worth getting rid of the Dickey Amendment at some point (or at least rewording it), even if it doesn’t pose a research obstacle. The problem with leaving the definition in the hands of the executive branch is that Republicans will control the White House again one day. If Governor Palin wins in 2012 (with an assist from Citigroup), the ban is back on.
So the Democrats should eventually – maybe not in the middle of the current economic battle – get around to amending that statute while they have such strong majorities. Once enacted, Republicans would have to break a filibuster to change the definition, and life-saving research would be more safe.