Like the case against embryonic stem cell research, the trial of Joan of Arc was political.
The armies of England occupied France: Joan led the fight to drive them out. When she was captured at last, the English knew it was not enough to kill her; she must be discredited as well.
The Church (which had taken the side of the occupiers) was willing to help. For weeks on end, Bishop Pierre Cauchon and his one hundred seventeen religious lawyers confronted the fifteen year-old girl, trying to make her confess to witchcraft.
They took her to the torturer, who demonstrated the cruel use of his tools. But Joan defied them, saying: "You can tear my body asunder... But if you make me speak falsely through pain, I will deny it later, as taken under duress."
They tried to shame the modest maid, asking if her angels appeared to her...naked. "Do you think God cannot afford to clothe his saints?" she answered.
Cauchon devised a wicked question, to trap the unlettered maid. "Are you, Joan, acting in the will of God?"
If she said yes, she was a witch and must die, because no one can know the will of God. If she said no, she was going against God--and was a witch and must die. Joan did not hesitate.
"If I am, may He keep me in the right. If I am not, may he show me the way."
"Magnificent answer," wrote the transcriber; Cauchon was furious. But it was for naught.
By the tawdriest of tricks, Joan was found guilty-- of the crime of wearing men's clothes. Her woman's dress was taken away while she slept, leaving her no choice what to put on in the morning.
She was burned to death; her ashes scattered in the Seine River.
Cauchon had done his job, "proving" her guilt; ironically, he made sure the transcripts of the trials were preserved, in hopes it would advance his career. Instead, Cauchon became a name for cruelty: the trial an abuse of religious power.
The case against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is of that ilk.
Sherley v. Sebelius, is brought by religious ideologues, and it will be tried by members of a political party on record as intending to ban the research.
This is no secret. The 2008 Republican party platform calls for "a ban on all embryonic stem cell research, public or private."
The judge in charge, Reagan-appointee Royce C. Lamberth, is a transplanted Texas Republican. The three-judge panel that found a pretext to let the trial to go forward--three more Republicans, all appointed by George W. Bush or his father.
And if the trial is appealed to the Supreme Court, Justice Roberts' court, perhaps the most conservative in modern history? A majority of conservative Republicans wait there.
Why would Republicans want to ban embryonic stem cell research?
It is a stalking horse for the abortion issue, a gift to the Religious Right, part of their endless struggle to overturn Roe V. Wade, and end forever a woman's right to choose.
What does embryonic stem cell research have to do with abortion? Nothing. There is no pregnancy in the research. It is biologically impossible for an unemplanted blastocyst to become a baby. No mother's womb, no baby--this is not rocket science.
Calling embryonic stem cell research "murder of young humans" is like calling Joan of Arc a witch because she wore trousers on the battlefield.
Adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher are ideologues. Catholic Theresa Deisher named her biomedical company after the Virgin Mary (AVM for Ave Maria); Baptist James Sherley (famous for throwing a hunger strike and crying racism when his tenure at MIT was denied) is a vehement denouncer of women's reproductive freedoms, calling abortion a "social disease".
Their standing in the case? Deisher and Sherley are upset about having to compete for research money. They want federal dollars reserved exclusively for adult stem cell researchers like themselves, and claim "immediate and irreparable damage" from having to compete against embryonic stem cell research projects.
On that basis, their wish to change the rules to benefit themselves, the Republican appeals court granted them standing--and by so doing allowed the case against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to go forward.
It would be laughable, if it were not so cruel.
The crux of the argument? An obscure law, the Dickey-Wicker (DW) Amendment, forbids the destruction or endangerment of embryos in federally-funded research.
Citing Dickey-Wicker as the "unambiguous intent of Congress", Judge Lamberth declares that federal dollars cannot be used for embryonic stem cell research.
But how can this obscure Act be called the "unambiguous intent of Congress"-- when it has never once been voted on (nor even debated) by Congress?
The Dickey-Wicker Amendment was shoved through, attached to un-related budgetary legislation. If Congress wanted the budget passed, they had to accept DW-- and that maneuver has worked ever since. No politician wants to be accused of "endangering" embryos, even donated blastocysts that were going to thrown away, and that would never be implanted in the womb.
And so the trick worked, and the Dickey-Wicker Amendment remained.
Why has it not been vigorously opposed before now?
In 1999, a funding approach was developed that was acceptable to three U.S. Presidents, (Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama) as well as Congress.
The Department of Health and Human Services allowed the federal government to fund research with human embryonic stem cell lines, provided that:
1. the lines were derived with funding from non-federal sources;
2. the stem cells were made from blastocysts made during in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, and were no longer needed for medically assisted reproductive purposes, and which would otherwise be thrown away;
3. and which were donated (without compensation) for medical research.
Under these careful terms--restricted still further by President Bush--the research went forward.
"Unambiguous"? Judge Lamberth has it backward. Congress was unambiguously in support of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research.
Unlike the stealth approach used to impose Dickey-Wicker, Congress had a full and vigorous debate on federal funding for hESC research: and approved it-- twice.
The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Acts of 2005 and 2007 passed both houses with strong majorities. President Bush vetoed both bills, but the will of Congress was clear.
If Sherley v. Sebelius prevails, the will of Congress will be denied, not upheld.
Joan of Arc did not live to see her great victory. But her courage and faith inspired France, and they rose and drove the English out.
Twenty years after her execution, Joan's mother, Isabel Romme, sued the Church, saying her daughter was not a witch.
To its everlasting credit, the Church admitted its error, declaring the trial null and void.
The new verdict, of course, came too late to help the beloved Maid of Orleans.
But there are other young people whose lives we can benefit.
One is Kaitlin (last name withheld). I have never met her. But here is what I do know:
"On her first day in the hospital (with type one diabetes--DR) 2-year-old Kaitlyn looked up at her father from her bed, intravenous tubes in both her arms, her hair matted, and said, "Daddy?"
"What, honey?" he said, bending over the railing of the bed.
"Fix," she said."
--Newsday, May 23, 2004
America needs stem cell research protection written into law, and we need it now.
Congress must do again what they did twice before, and approve the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, suitably vetted to be sure it overrides Dickey-Wicker.
To accomplish that goal, Senator Arlen Specter has just introduced the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2010."
It deserves immediate passage and the complete support of the advocate community.
This time we have a President who will sign it.