One judge and Christian right throw stem cell research into chaos

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of and the tremendous damage to American scientific research inflicted last week by … Continued

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of and the tremendous damage to American scientific research inflicted last week by Federal District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth when he issued a temporary injunction against President Obama’s 2009 executive order expanding government financing for embryonic stem cell research. The Obama administration will appeal the ruling immediately, but there is no telling when or whether this injunction will be lifted as the case makes its way, in all probability, to the Supreme Court.

But this anti-science ruling is not merely the work of one judge, appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. It is the product of a successful long-term campaign by the Christian right to stack the judiciary not only with political but with religious conservatives. It is part of the same determination to inject a right-wing version of the Christian God into government displayed by that unfrocked clergyman, Glenn Beck, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this weekend. The motto of the long attack on embryonic stem cell research might as well be called Beck’s Beatitude: “Blessed are the ignorant, for they shall inherit none of the fruits of the long human struggle to understand nature.” It’s all part of the same contempt for America’s greatest founding gift–the world’s first secular government.

Judge Lamberth’s ruling is so broad and vague that it may also halt the more limited embryonic stem cell research allowed during President George W. Bush’s administration. The Alliance Defense Fund, a handsomely funded legal arm of the Christian right, is representing the plaintiffs–two researchers on adult stem cells who spend a good deal of their spare time publicly opposing abortion.

Lamberth’s decision turns on something called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that bans federal financing for “any research in which a human enbryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to the risk of injury or death.” Both Presidents Bush and Obama interpreted this amendment–Bush in a much narrower
way–to mean that as long as the extraction of stem cells with embryos was financed privately, NIH grants recipients could go forward from there. Obama’s rules greatly expanded the research, but even Bush’s much narrower interpretation was designed to find some way around the Christian right’s absolute insistence that six-day-old embryos, destined to be thrown out by fertility clinics, are “persons” with 14th Amendment rights.

Here’s a thought. What if these embryos are the embryos of illegal immigrants? Since the Republicans are tossing around the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment to bar babies of illegal immigrants from citizenship, perhaps we will have to deport some of the spare embryos from fertility clinics.

But I digress. The original plaintiffs in this lawsuit also included embryos themselves as well as an agency called Nightlight Christian Adoptions, dedicated to the idea that every frozen embryo can and will be adopted by the millions of good Christian families just waiting for the opportunity to rescue a stranger’s cells.

In June, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia–a once-liberal court that has been turned into a much more conservative body by decades of right-wing appointments–dropped the embryos and the adoption agency but said that the lawsuit could proceed with only two scientists as plaintiffs. The appeals court allowed the two adult stem cell researchers to remain as plaintiffs on the bizarre ground that their research would be adversely affected by competition from embryonic stem cell researchers obtaining NIH grants.

This is a particularly strange claim, given that the government now spends 10 times as much on adult stem cell research as on embryonic stem cell research. But even that is beside the point. Competitive research, exploring different avenues, is essential to the progress of science and medicine. It is as though some court in 1948 had said to Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose different vaccines ended the scourge of polio in the 1950s, that only one of them could continue his research. Or that neither of them could try to develop a vaccine, because that would interfere with the research efforts of medical technology firms trying to develop better braces for the crippled.

Now let us take a look at these two plaintiffs (whose personal biographies should have occupied a prominent place in every story about this decision.) James L. Sherley, the son of a Baptist minister, is now employed by the Boston Biomedical Reserach Institute in Boston. When he is not in his lab, he monitors Boston newspapers and inveighs against articles he views as favorable to abortion.

Theresa Deisher is the founder of AVM Biotechnology in Seattle. The company intials, by the way, stand for “Ave Maria.” In many interviews, she said she was a “radical feminist” in college but later returned to her Catholic roots. She is opposed to embryonic stem cell research not only because of her faith but because she does not think the research will work. (Of course it won’t work if it never receives adequate financing. In an apocalypic interview with the National Catholic Register, she predicted that “in the early human trials we will probably see a short-term benefit, but it will be followed by devastation and disaster.” I can just hear her laughing at a prediction in, say, 1950, that one day it would be possible to transplant kidneys and hearts from one body into another. Why, any fool could see that organ transplants would turn patients into Frankenstein’s monsters!

There are two conclusions that I draw, as a political liberal and an atheist, from this insane state of affairs. First, the forces of religious reaction will never give up in their attempt to impose their religious values on every aspect of culture and government, including science and education. Never. How foolish all of the punditry maintaining that the culture wars were over–much of it dished out in the early months of the Obama administration–now looks. Even when these people aren’t making headlines with their ravings about a return to God on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they are hard at work trying to undermine rational endeavor and rational thought.

Second, liberals and anyone, of whatever political persuasion, who values free inquiry, ought to think twice before they decide to sit out the mid-term elections because they are disappointed in Obama. Think about the alternative. Many of the right-whiners running for Congress this fall are representatives of every force of anti-rationalism in this country. They prove it over and over again. This lawsuit, which in the best-case scenario will only have a temporary chilling effect on embryonic stem cell research, is just one shot in the religious right’s unending war on reason.

About

Susan Jacoby Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism"­ and is completing a secular history of religious conversion.
  • WmarkW

    Those wacky federal judges. They should stick to interpreting the law and Constitution and stop imposing their personal values into the legislative process, shouldn’t they?Earlier this year, a federal judge somehow ruled that California voters don’t have the right to use their state’s referendum process to overturn a state law they oppose. Does liberalism have any more a consistent philosophy on the separation of powers than conservatives do?

  • timmy2

    There are Jews in the world.I’m a Roman Catholic,You don’t have to be a six-footer.BecauseEvery sperm is sacred.Let the heathen spill theirsEvery sperm is wanted.Hindu, Taoist, Mormon,Every sperm is sacred.Every sperm is useful.Let the Pagan spill theirsEvery sperm is sacred.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    WnarkWWe get it; we get it; you’re opposed to stem cell research; gays are an abomination; guns for everyone; support the military; oppose health care; God and country; gotta love that Sarah Palin, the hot Republican Mamma; evolution is a fraud; science is a conspiracy; there is no global warming; support family values; faint at the site of a woman’s breast; English first; lower taxes; no government; greed is good; money is good; hispanics are bad; Muslims are bad; atheists are bad; you have the truth.

  • WmarkW

    DitLD,HUH?I’m not opposed to stem cell researchThis is just silly:[no government; greed is good; money is good; hispanics are bad; Muslims are bad; atheists are bad]But where does a federal judge tell a state it can’t use its referendum procedures?

  • timmy2

    Mark,”support family values, not inner-city non-family structures”Support family values all you want, but your unsupport for inner-city-non-family structures includes me, and I am a positive contributor to society. I deserve support for my lifestyle too. Families are fine and I support them but they’re not the be all and end all.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    wmarkwI think I may get you confused with someone else. I have that problem with a couple of these screen-names.Since Susan’s essay wasn’t about prop-8 but you sneaked it in anyway, on the very first comment, I got a little confused about what you were getting at.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Embryonic stem cell research could lead to better treatments for cancer. Embryonic stem cell research could lead to Embryonic stem cell research could lead to the ability of the body to produce insulin and cure diabetes. Embryonic stem cell research could replace kidney, heart, liver and lung transplanattion, or could enable transplantation of organs without rejection.There are many, many other possible applicatons of stem cell research, too numerous for me to mention here, too numerous even to imagine off the top of my head.To be honest, I am a little disgusted with ignorant people who seek to block the progress of science for their weird religious reasons.

  • potaboc

    At various points in history nations (quite rightly) have been condemned for performing medical experiments on living human beings who did not consent. I submit this is exactly what Ms. Jacoby advocates. To the probable defense that the fetus legally is not a human being, I pose a question. If those nations had just passed laws which defined the test subjects as not human, would that have excused their behavior?

  • jrm1

    @ potaboc: characterizing an embryo as a “living human being” is quite a stretch! retreating to “a potential human being” is not a safe hedge either. it is not too far-fetched that we will someday have the ability to clone humans from any material containing human DNA. a removed tonsil would then also contain many “potential human beings”! would cutting and then discarding your fingernails be murder?

  • Carstonio

    Without addressing the ethics of using embryonic stem cells, I’m concerned about the inconsistency in most of the arguments against that use. It would be logical to conclude from these arguments that opponents would also seek a ban on the fertility treatments that produce unwanted embryos. Yet from my reading, most opponents either support those treatments or don’t explicitly oppose them. Mitch Albom had it right when he suggested that many opponents seek to make the issue look, sound and feel like the abortion debate.

  • Carstonio

    “support family values, not inner-city non-family structures”If you mean that men should take responsibilities for the children they father, I agree in principle. In my experience, “family values” as a term is used by religious conservatives as code for opposition to homosexuality (as if that was a threat to families) and for gender roles where wives are subservient to husbands. It’s also used to mean opposition to explicit entertainment – that fails to recognize that such entertainment doesn’t cause breakups of marriages, but is merely a symptom of the problems in the marriages.

  • Carstonio

    “But the state shouldn’t be empowering the uneducated and unskilled to become moms just because they can’t find anything else to do with their lives.”Whatever the faults or merits of state assistance, it’s a fallacy that the assistance tempts women to become mothers when they would otherwise not do so. Most explanations that I’ve heard involve dysfunctional upbringings for such women, as well as for the men who abandon them. As an analogy, one of my frustrations with abortion debates is that so little focus is placed on fixing the problem of unwanted pregnancies, and I shake my head in amazement when an abortion opponent also declares opposition to contraception and sex education. It’s far too easy to assume that the world is a just place where individuals deserve all the credit or blame for what happens to them. And far too easy for men to assume that women should simply keep their legs shut.

  • WmarkW

    I full support access to abortion, contraception and sex education. NOTHING perpetuates poverty and crime (in America) like single parenthood. But state support also empowers single parenthood. The inner-city unwed parenthood rate is far too high to be explained by “oops!”

  • Secular

    Edbyronadams you wrote, “Once you abandon original intent as the founding philosophy of the judiciary, it just becomes another political venue, just at a further distance from the consent of the people”. This concept is really as silly as seeing the proponent of this Scalia, in a bathing suit. In a bicameral system of governing there are 536 people involved the 435 Congress persons, 100 Senator and the president, to deign that there is one voice or intent is delusional. Off of these many peoples whose views will prevail with the judge when (s)she is interpreting the statute? That of the president, who signs it in the law who may not even have spoken or his fulminations in various public fora or the trial balloons the WH floats from time to time? Is that the utterances of the majority who may have voted for the legislation, often with contradictory motivations and utterances on the subject? To talk about original intent is about as stupid, & intellectually dishonest as it can get. The Scalia wing in the guise of original intent substitutes its vile, absurd, irrational, amoral and delusional view of the world when they hand down their moronic edicts. And we the denizens of 21st century have to live with these neanderthals rulings.

  • Secular

    DanielintheLionsDen you wrote, “Embryonic stem cell research could replace kidney, heart, liver and lung transplanattion, or could enable transplantation of organs without rejection”. Yep I am glad you pointed it out. And for the benefit of the Skydaddy’s children, 21st century scientists can perfect their skydaddy’s oversight of not incorporating the “Fault Tolerance” & “Redundancy” in his design. We being, as they claim are the perfect design of their skydaddy.

  • mrbradwii

    The amendment: (1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; orAccording to the wiki–: The Dickey amendment language has been added to each of the Labor, HHS, and Education appropriations acts for FY1997 through FY2009. The original rider can be found in Section 128 of P.L. 104-99Seems to me as long as the amendment remains valid, the judge really has no choice. It’s not a bad judgment, reading, or interpretation — but a bad law.Somebody signed it. And that would be every president, from Clinton onward.Whoever manages the Obama agenda is either incompetent or focused on other stuff, likely both.As far as culture wars, we can never be rid of them, for that’s precisely what gives us American culture — non-homogeneity, and the passion of each to defend their values. Happiness, complacency, and acceptance are over-rated. It’s no fun for anyone if either side rolls over.

  • timmy2

    “or knowingly subjected to risk of injury “Heaven forbid a stem cell should ever suffer a severely stubbed toe during an experiment to cure Parkinson’s.

  • timmy2

    What is the original intent of the phrase “All men are created equal”?Keep in mind the men who wrote it owned slaves and excluded women from the vote. So the original intent could not be that black people are equal to white people or that women are equal to men. Clearly they intended for white people to own slaves and for women to be subordinate to men. And we all know that the original intent of “Thou shalt not Kill” was really “though shalt not kill fellow Jews.”The constitution has amendments for a reason. Because times change. It has always been and always will be a living constitution and that works fine for me. I trust the people.

  • timmy2

    “The founders obviously wanted the Supreme Court to be a conservative institution, holding succeeding generations true to the written words of the Constitution”They didn’t even hold themselves true to the written words of the constitution unless you consider slavery and denying women the vote to be constitutional. So do you?

  • Carstonio

    To expand on Timmy’s point, one of my definitions of progress is making sure that all citizens have equal rights under the law. The principles enshrined in the Constitution enable that progress. It doesn’t matter whether the Founders intended for those equal rights to apply to only white men. What matter is that we outgrow the backward ideas of whites and men being superiors.Jefferson wrote that “…laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

  • edbyronadams

    The amendment process is part of the Constitution and I’m certain the founders would not want SCOTUS to ignore the words of the 14th or 19th amendment. However, the amendment process is deliberately difficult and represents a true consensus of the people in establishing fundamental rights into the supreme law of the land. The question here is whether the SCOTUS itself should act expansively to establish novel rights itself and if so, on what basis.

  • edbyronadams

    “What is the original intent of the phrase “All men are created equal”?”Be careful in invoking the Declaration, Tim, since it declares that rights emerge from the same Creator.

  • timmy2

    “Be careful in invoking the Declaration, Tim, since it declares that rights emerge from the same Creator”I’m pretty sure that I did not invoke anything. Besides, the declaration is talking about mother nature when it refers to the creator, and even I believe in mother nature.

  • bruce18

    Dear Susan,

  • timmy2

    “I guess overspending his entire life made it too difficult to be personally magnanimous”Are you saying that setting slaves free upon one’s death IS personally magnanimous?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    bruce18 Yes, you are ignorant. Sorry for adhominumism, but this too important to be polite.Yes, sacrafice all future medical progress to fight disease, to protect unformed embryonic life, because ignorant unlettered morons like you make a capricious and arbitrary judgement that such cells are more sacred than skin cells or hair cells.They are not.

  • daniel12

    Test.

  • timmy2

    D12 says “test”Yeah right Daniel. What world do you live in? What a bs thing to say. “Test” indeed. Sorry, I got carried away with our adversarial relationship. I guess there’s nothing wrong with saying “test.” Carry on.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Looks like some of the embryos are taking offense to Susan’s post.

  • Secular

    RbbyronAdams, you wrote, “So what are the alternative principles? The founders obviously wanted the Supreme Court to be a conservative institution, holding succeeding generations true to the written words of the Constitution. Otherwise the institution makes little sense”. The point of my post regarding the original intent is that it is not a principle at all it is a fig leaf for the biblical bigots and reactionaries to hold down the progress of humankind. Every member of the decrypt Scalia wing of SCOTUS is of the opinion that ROE V. Wade and Brown decisions were wrongly arrived and that violates that damn fig leaf original intent. In the latter case they are probably right insofar as the original lawmakers did not want the non-whites to have equal educational opportunities. So what, the 1950s zeitgeist needed the remaining neanderthals to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2oth century. Just the same as the with gay marriage issue, today’s zeitgeist demands that the current day bigots and neanderthals need to be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming, if need be.The long and short of my rant is that there is no such thing as Original Intent, it is absolute rubbish. These reactionaries in SCOTUS all they care is to rule us from those musty 2000 old tomes, which should have been flushed down the water closet, when they invented indoor plumbing.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Secular:I take it that in your post you are referring to the Catholic Conservatives. Fine. They have Catholic arguments. They take them from the NT (sic). Since you are a Biblical scholar, let us hear them.You really are getting to be a pain.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    The three branches of government–checks and balances. Use google.

  • timmy2

    I’m with Secular. “Original intent” is often a smoke screen. The founders seemed to have no strong opinion on when life begins or they would have put something into the constitution about it. So it is up to us to decide and there is no “original intent” applicable. Same goes for gay marriage. The founders obviously had no “original intent” on the issue of same sex marriage. They couldn’t think of everything, or even give us a roadmap for everything. It’s up to us to decide. We are smart and educated grown ups too. We can handle it.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Checks and balances. On the “Founders” and when life begins, I mean, please.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Some of the First Nations (here and in Canada) fully accepted what we construct as “gayness.” Some still do. I’m thinking of the great American Indian dancer, who retired a few years ago. I watched a film of the period just before it. He went back to the reservation to see some of his relatives and friends of his parents. They clearly knew his orientation.Later his Puerto Rican father and Indian mother took him to meet his father’s Catholic relatives in PR. He concealed who he was. He intuited that it was not all right. Signals came from his father.Perhaps, the “Founders” did have something to say on some topical issues.

  • timmy2

    “Perhaps, the “Founders” did have something to say on some topical issues”I’d love to see some quotes from the founders of America on gay marriage or when life begins. I mean, please.

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    First Nations (the Founding Fathers), at least, some tribes would fully accept gay marriage, endorse it, accept gayness, etc. See my post.And they are the Founding Mothers and Fathers. (You know, the ones dying a slow death, the millions in Canada, Australia, the few left here.)As for the other “Founding Father,” Father Jerr, the slave owner and rapist owes a lot to one, Locke. Not to see that old Tom didn’t have a brain of his own. He and old Tom Paine, the Great Atheist, were keen on killing Indians too.Founding Fathers my arse. Reads like a science fiction novel. And guess who those sci fi folks had in mind? The Haggadah is an interesting text. Use Wikipedia. There is no mention at all of Moses in it. None, whatsoever, and the reason is not that the “writers” did not think he existed.Founding Fathers. Foundationalism.

  • WmarkW

    Original Intent has legitimate and illegitimate uses, often related to the Tenth Amendment that says a right doesn’t have to be specifically enumerated in the Constitution for the people or states to enjoy it. The implication of that Amendment is that there is something more fundamental that the Constitution — our understanding of what the scope of government is. The 1980s Religious Right erroneously argued that the Constitution has to be interpreted in light of the Bible, since that is their understanding of where our culture comes from. Some modern anti-free-speech advocates suggest that the First Amendment has to be understood in light of the need for special protections of the interests of women and minorities. People like Andrea Dworkin and Toni Morrison say thing like “pornography is rape” or “words are violence” to justify restrictions with which the founders would not agree. They take the view that free speech was constructed by the founders as a tool of white male hegonomy.The Griswold and Roe decisions were based on the idea that family size decisions are not a governmental matter. The founders would probably have agreed about that.

  • Secular

    Farnaz you wrote, “I take it that in your post you are referring to the Catholic Conservatives. Fine. They have Catholic arguments. They take them from the NT (sic). Since you are a Biblical scholar, let us hear them”. I am not referring to the so called “Catholic Conservative”. I am referring to Scalia, Thomas, Alito, & Roberts most of the time. If they happen to be catholic so be it. They hold that 3000 year tome, that was updated 2000 years ago as their guiding light. But it is not an imperative that these had to be catholic to hold such neanderthal views, so my tirade was not against any catholic cabal, but is against the cabal period. As you know there are some references to spilling the seed or some such inanities in those tomes that forms the basis for their rulings. I don’t have much use for these old tomes, doesn’t matter which part of Asia they originated. So I don’t feel obligated to learn about the nuances of those biblical inanities, any more than I care to learn about the nuances of the various recipes of alchemistry to turn gold into lead or was it lead into gold. The point is they will take this non-principle of original intent and blend it with their biblical world view. That’s all I have to say about their rulings in the social & cultural arena.The point I was making that seems to have been overlooked here is that how do you discern original intent out of the rants, fulminations, grand standings of 536 people. The underlying (unsaid) presumption of the so called “Original Intent” is that the majority spoke with one voice. In fact vast majority of them probably may not have even said a word about the subject, while the legislation was debated. Even those who opined in the debate on the majority side may not have had identical views or opinions. The so called original intenters are doing is picking and choosing the opinions of the majority legislators (may be) that were vocalized, which are in consort with their own neanderthal views to foist their 1st century world view on us all, in the 21st century.

  • timmy2

    FarnazFirst Nations and founders of America are two different things. “Founders” does not refer to those who found this land but those who founded the nation and it’s constitution. The very term “first nations” indicates that they were the first, not the only, nation. You are really getting to be a pain.

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