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.