Lessons from when embryonic stem cell research was illegal

federal funding of human embryonic stem (ES) cell research in the U.S. by James Sherley and Theresa Deisher.
Dr. James Sherley, who filed suit to stop federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in the US in 2010.

We kind of take for granted these days that embryonic stem cell research can proceed without any restrictions, at least at the federal level. However, in the early days of blogging here on The Niche the big debate and battle were over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Things got very complicated and for a time the funding was illegal.

We should learn from this science history because things could easily go back to that restrictive atmosphere again. Science is not in a bubble from ideology.

So let’s take a quick look back at how the US ended up banning funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research for a time. We’ll do this by thumbing through key posts here on The Niche.

How did the ban on embryonic stem cell research happen?

A federal judge Royce Lamberth played a key role in the situation. At issue was something called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that blocked (and still blocks) funding of research where human embryos are destroyed. Does generation of hESC lines count? Use of those lines?

Drs. James Sherley and  Theresa Deisher filed suit to block this kind of research funding. In August 2010 Lamberth issued a ruling with an injunction blocking NIH funding here.

Appeals followed back and forth going up the chain of courts. I covered them here on The Niche. If memory serves, during this tumultuous time there was a period of more than a month when it was illegal for NIH to fund hESC research and even grants containing hESC research could not even be reviewed. Eventually the courts decided to allow NIH funding of hESC research.

Here are some key The Niche posts on major events in this saga:

Theresa Deisher
Picture from Nature piece by Meredith Wadman on Theresa Deisher and research on embryonic stem cells.

State restrictions on embryonic stem cell research

Of course, efforts to block hESC research manifested at the state and federal level. An early post was on such efforts in Oklahoma.

Feb. 2011.  “Oklahoma leaders: ES cell research is not OK

A core idea behind people trying to ban hESC research is that a fertilized egg is an equal human being to all the people walking around the planet. One of the other earliest relevant posts I did here was about this idea of early embryo personhood.

Nov. 2011.  “Why Horton was wrong: a person is not a person no matter how small

There have been a variety of organizations trying to ban hESC research funding or even hESC research entirely. One was the Witherspoon Institute. Here I posted about them.

Jan. 2012. “Secrets of the Witherspoon Gang

You can see that I was pretty aggressive back then with that title and in going after groups that were trying to stop hESC research. I definitely wouldn’t call them a “gang” these days.

The Vatican has played an important role in opposing embryonic stem cell research funding. They’ve had a variety of their own adult stem cell meetings and here was a guest report from one of them, where hESC research data were verboten:

April 2013.John Carbona on Day 2 of Vatican Stem Cell Meeting including Gurdon Talk

Looking ahead: will other kinds of research be banned?

Now in 2020 and looking to the future, research on embryonic stem cells could still be banned by the Trump administration, which has recently blocked fetal tissue research. The fetal tissue block in turn has impeded some COVID-19 research.

More broadly, the extent to which governments should block research or funding of certain kinds of research is tricky.

The issue keeps coming up such as with CRISPR of human embryos for reproductive use. While I favor a temporary moratorium on germline human CRISPR, I don’t favor a legal ban (which is actually technically in place in the US now), as that would likely become political and perhaps too restrictive.

One big lesson from the ES cell experience is that scientists need to be advocates too and they shouldn’t count on their research always being legal or allowed to move forward with political restrictions.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from when embryonic stem cell research was illegal”

  1. I remember those days well. In fact, until November 2008, it was a felony to do embryonic stem cell research in Michigan. That was a long battle to educate enough people in the state so they could understand the proposal.

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