The Next Frontier of the Stem Cell Debate

"Snowflake" babies, embryo "adoption," and being pre-born again

The real legal struggle over frozen embryos may still be on the horizon: In 1996, the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment banned the use of tax dollars to create human embryos or fund research in which they are destroyed. Every year since, Congress has voted to uphold the law. By lifting the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in March, Obama directed the National Institutes of Health to draw up "guidelines" for how it might proceed if the Dickey-Wicker ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research could be overturned. Obama doesn't have the authority to overturn the ban himself—only Congress does.

"Right now, nobody understands that this kind of research isn't going to get federally funded until Congress itself decides to change the rules of the game," says Casey. "If Obama really wants to force it, I guess he can. He's the President. But all of a sudden, I think he'll see a lot of action"—which could very well include another lawsuit like the one Casey filed in 2001. Back then, when it looked as if the NIH would circumvent Dickey-Wicker and push for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research anyway, Stoddart's Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency, with the assistance of Casey, filed suit against the NIH, the HHS, and HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. The suit was ultimately dismissed in 2002, when President Bush withdrew the NIH's proposed plans, or guidelines.

"The pro-life community seems to be playing by the rule of the country so far. But they'll participate in full voice," says Casey, if the NIH guidelines again suggest that the agency will push for federal funding of research on embryos, as they're expected to do. The NIH final guidelines are due to be published on or before July 7.

Jeffrey Marini
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?
The next minority group: Frozen bundles of cells in “concentration cans”?

Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, originally sponsored a bill that would have overturned Dickey-Wicker, but it was twice vetoed by President Bush. DeGette and Mike Castle, a Republican congressman from Delaware, are again trying to gain support for overturning the ban.

In an interview with the Times, DeGette said she was working with pro-life Democrats who are now open to reversing the policy, which could potentially deepen the divide between pro-life groups that view embryos as pre-born children and those that are more focused on protecting the fetus and are open to stem cell research on embryos. If DeGette's pro-life allies do indeed lobby to overturn Dickey-Wicker, it's likely that the country will see pro-life groups going toe-to-toe over the fate of frozen embryos.

The last time Lauren's husband saw her in person, she was one month pregnant. He was deployed to Baghdad last summer and was home on leave for Christmas.

This afternoon, in early May, he boarded a plane bound for home. The doctor had told him that 25 weeks was about the time that women expecting triplets start to get really uncomfortable. Lauren is at 26 and a half. "I'm feeling it," she says. "I'm already nine-months-pregnant–size."

Her friends and family have been helping her throughout the pregnancy. Today, a girlfriend is helping to clean her refrigerator, since Lauren can no longer bend over. They're having fun, Lauren directing her friend to put the Parmesan here, the yogurt there. They're joking around, laughing. Lauren recently put their house up for sale, since it's too small to accommodate four kids and a nanny. She's had to deal with a mason and a landscaper, and, until recently, was still trying to go to work a few days a week. It's been stressful—she knows that it's a rotten time to be trying to sell. It's likely that she and her husband will be bringing their babies back to the old house instead of to a new one. "The babies will just kind of have to sleep anywhere," she jokes.

Despite all the stress of preparing for the babies' arrival, Lauren is excited to meet her future kids—two boys and a girl. It wasn't that long ago that she doubted this day would ever come. Questions over the personhood of frozen embryos and embryonic stem cell research are the furthest thing from her mind right now.

Tomorrow, she starts shopping around for a minivan, one big enough to seat six comfortably: two adults and four car seats.

"A minivan—ha!" she smiles. "Who would have thought?"

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