Repeal Dickey-Wicker: Time to Stop Renewing the Anti-Research Law

11/09/2010 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Don C. Reed Sponsor, California’s Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999

A law exists which may prevent my paralyzed son from ever leaving his wheelchair, but that law has never been debated on the floor of Congress.

Attached to must-pass legislation, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment was imposed on America. If Congress wanted the Health and Human Services Appropriations Act, they had to accept Section 509, which contained the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. That no-questions-asked technique has been used to renew it ever since.

Prohibiting government funding of "endangerment" of embryos, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment sounds harmless at first, but it may have devastating, even unintended consequences.

Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated by Dr. Jamie Thomson of Wisconsin in 1998. As Dickey-Wicker began three years before that, in 1995, it is difficult to say it was intended to block stem cell research, which came three years later -- but that may well be its effect.

Reportedly, President Bill Clinton objected to the Amendment's inclusion; he was told that, if he did not accept it, the conservative-controlled legislature would block all funding for the entire National Institutes for Health.

Thanks to the careful work of attorney Harriet Rabb, General Counsel for Health and Human Services at the time, a compromise was worked out so that research on embryonic stem cells (which of course are not embryos) could be funded. This approach was deemed acceptable by three Presidents and eight Congresses.

Presently, however, that compromise is under threat. Dickey-Wicker is being used by a lawsuit (Sherley vs. Sebelius) to try to permanently block federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Conservative judge Royce Lamberth is interpreting Dickey-Wicker as the "unambiguous intent of Congress" -- opposing federal money for that research.

If Judge Lamberth holds to that opinion, he will very likely rule to prohibit federal dollars for the research which might one day allow my son to fulfill Christopher Reeve's great prediction to "stand up from our wheelchairs, and walk away from them forever."

After Judge Lamberth waits a 3-judge appeals court, also conservative, with two Bush-appointed Republicans -- and then, the Roberts Supreme Court, arguably the most conservative in modern history.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment must be stripped out from the bill in which it hides.

Right now, the bill which contains Dickey-Wicker (L-HHS Appropriations Act) has not been voted on. The committee which had it last was the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

If the judge is right, and the Dickey-Wicker Amendment reflects the will of Congress that embryonic stem cell research should not be funded, that will show in their votes on that subject.

So here are the people on that committee -- and how they voted on the Stem Cell Research

Enhancement Act of 2007, to allow and support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

1. Senator Tom Harkin--yes
2. Senator Daniel Inouye--yes
3. Senator Herb Kohl--yes
4. Senator Patty Murray--yes
5. Senator Mary Landrieu--no
6. Senator Richard Durbin--yes
7. Senator Jack Reed--yes
8. Senator Mark Pryor--yes
9. Senator Arlen Specter--yes
10. Senator Thad Cochran--yes
11. Senator Judd Gregg--yes
12. Senator Kay Bailey-Hutchison--yes
13. Senator Richard Shelby--no
14. Senator Lamar Alexander--yes

Of 14 members on that bipartisan committee, 12 were in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and only 2 were opposed.

How can anyone add up such numbers and say it is the "unambiguous intent" of Congress that embryonic stem cell research should not be funded?

All these people support funding the research, but they had to hold their noses and vote for a bill that included Dickey-Wicker's anti-research poison.

No more. The stakes are too high to let this slide.

If the current lawsuit succeeds, the federal government will never be able to fund research with the greatest potential to cure spinal cord injury, cancer, Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's, heart disease -- the costs of which are crippling our economy.

You've heard the statistics: how incurable disease cost $1.65 trillion last year, more than all federal income taxes combined ($1.2 trillion). Think what that means -- if we spent every nickel of our federal income taxes, we still could not pay off that mountain of medical debt. Only cure can lower those costs. And the price of suffering? Incalculable.

I wish that any politician who opposes research for cure could spend a day being paralyzed: like my son Roman Reed.

Despite his quadriplegia, Roman lives his life to the full and does not complain.

But I am his father, and I see the hell he goes through every day.

What is it like being paralyzed? It is impossible for any able-bodied person to fully understand what it is like being denied control of your body.

But try this for a sample: pick up a pencil, using only the insides of your wrists.

Now write a letter with it, and imagine the frustration of having all your bodily functions similarly restricted.

Yet Dickey-Wicker, which may block research to heal my son, has never even been debated on the floor of Congress, let alone put to a vote. Never.

It is just re-imposed on America without debate, year after year. This is not right.

Dickey-Wicker puts at risk a promising form of research which might save lives and ease suffering for millions.

I have held in my hand a laboratory rat which had been paralyzed, but which walked again, thanks to embryonic stem cell research.

That is the research is now going to human trials by Geron.

The stem cells of that therapy were made from microscopic blastocysts, leftover from IVF assisted reproductive procedures. These dots in a dish of salt water were already scheduled to be thrown away. They would never be implanted in a womb, so it was biologically impossible for them to become a life, instead of living tissue.

Embryonic stem cell research has been debated till the collective throats of Congress were raw: twice. Both times, the funding was approved by overwhelming margins, almost (but not quite) enough to override the Presidential veto.

Yet Dickey-Wicker is allowed to slide through without argument, virtually bypassing the legislative process, mandated without the slightest hearing of the other side.

It was never debated, never publicly proposed, never voted on -- and yet, Dickey-Wicker is considered the "unambiguous intent" of Congress?

It is time for that fallacy to be corrected.

The harm of Dickey-Wicker may be undone several ways: perhaps by the passage of legislation in the lame duck session of Congress: a Stem Cell Research Advancement Act, like the one passed twice before: only this time, we have a President who will sign it.

Dickey-Wicker itself might be altered, so that does not prohibits funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Personally, I prefer to remove it altogether.

But however it is resolved, the issue must not be buried again. Dickey-Wicker can no longer wreak its poison unacknowledged.

If its sponsors still believe in it, they should bring Dickey-Wicker forward as a bill, out into the open for Congress and the Senate to decide: exactly as was done for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which was passed twice, and is the clearly demonstrated intent of Congress.

If Dickey-Wicker has value, let it be considered through the normal process of consideration and debate: not imposed by ideological machinations.

If it is the will of Congress, it will prevail.

If not, then we need to recognize it as the danger which it is.

Any legislator who does not approve of "earmarks" added on to unrelated bills should ask to have the Dickey-Wicker Amendment removed from the L-HHS Appropriations Act.

Any lawmaker who believes that cure research should never be the prey of partisan politics should be heard now.

Any constituent who supports stem cell research should contact their legislators and ask for the removal of what must be considered anti-life legislation.

By its censorship of science, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment encourages the premature deaths and needless suffering of millions with chronic disease.

Like a legislative cancer, it should be removed.