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Science, Policy, and the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (Part 1)

By Cathryn Smeyers

On Thursday, February 21st, Gregory Dolin, MD, JD, Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center of Medicine & Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, delivered our Virtual Grand Rounds.  His talk, entitled “Speaking of Science: Legal Updates in Oncofertility,” focused on the knowledge gap that often exists between the scientific community and government policy makers and the serious ramifications this can have on scientific progress.  To illustrate this point, Dr. Dolin focused specifically on the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (DWA), passed by Congress in 2006, bans federal funding for research using embryos and parthenotes (a group of cells derived from an egg that begins dividing without fertilization from sperm). Parthenotes contain genetic material from only the maternal source, whereas embryos are created through fertilization and contain genetic material from both female and male. In higher-order organisms (including humans), a parthenote cannot result in a viable full-term offspring.  Consequently, when the DWA expanded the ban on federal funding to include parthenotes, in addition to embryos, it put an end to scientific research being done on cells that have no potential to result in human life.

Scientific research involving parthenotes is key to oncofertility because it provides invaluable insight into the early stages of pregnancy and embryonic development (which can lead to improvements in Assisted Reproductive Technologies), miscarriages, and tumors. Objections to the use of embryos in research stem from the claim that embryos constitute (or have the potential to become) human life.  Parthenotes, however, do not experience fertilization and do not have the potential to become human life.  Why, then, with regard to federal funding for scientific research, should parthenotes be placed in the same category as embryos?

This is the very question that Dr. Dolin tackled in last week, and his answer was alarming.  According to Dr. Dolin, Congress often legislates without understanding the full scope of its enactments.  He argues that the problem is particularly acute in the areas of science, because Congressmen do not understand science.  Currently, out of the 535 members of Congress, we have one physicist, 22 people with medical training, one chemist, one microbiologist and six engineers.  Consequently, when it comes to complex scientific issues, such as the distinction between an embryo and a parthenote, Congress can pass legislation based on incorrect or incomplete information.

Keep reading tomorrow for Part 2…

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