Embryo research during President William J. Clinton’s administration (1993-2001)

Following Clinton’s Presidential Inauguration in 1993, the administration reevaluated its stance on embryo research. Congress soon authorized the NIH to proceed without the then defunct Ethics Advisory Board’s oversight and actually assembled its own ethics advisory committee in preparation for the commencement of embryo research.

With the midterm elections of 1994, however, Republicans regained control of Congress, and progress toward the start of embryo research was slowed due to pressure from the new conservative majority.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (1995) and Human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) Research

In 1995, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.

In 1996, an additional concept was added in the amendment indicating that all federal funding in support of research with human embryos is illegal. Moreover, the Dickey-Wicker amendment defines embryos as “any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment provides that “no federal funds can be expended by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for:
  1. the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
  2. research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risks of injury or death.”

The bill has been renewed by every Congress since the signing of this amendment (1995).

With the first derivation of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines in 1998 (toward the end of the Clinton administration), the question became whether funding of research on hESC’s would be in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

Congressman Jay W. Dickey and Senator Roger F. Wicker

Jay W. Dickey, Jr. (1939 - ), a former U.S. Representative from the Fourth Congressional District of Arkansas, served in Congress from 1993 to 2001. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment -- prohibiting spending of federal funds on research that involves the destruction of a human embryo -- is a bill he sponsored and is named for him. Former Rep. Dickey, known for controversial and conservative positions on many issues despite representing a moderate district, lost his seat to democrat Mike Ross in 2000.

Roger F. Wicker (1951 - ) the 1st term Republican junior senator of Mississippi who was appointed by then- Governor Haley Barbour in 2007 to fill the seat vacated by Trent Lott, the former Senator. In a 2008 special election, Wicker won for the remainder of Lott’s term. Wicker is also known for the appropriations bill, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which he co-sponsored while representing Mississippi’s conservative 1st congressional district (1995 to 2007) prior to his Senate post (Congress 2007).

Harriett Rabb, at the time General Counsel to the Department of Health and Human Services, authored a memo to Dr. Harold Varmus, then Director of the NIH, offering two arguments in favor of the funding of human ESC research (Rabb 1999).

The first was to draw a distinction between the creation of hESC lines and research using those lines; she maintained that if the derivation of the lines was privately funded, federal funding of later research would not pose a problem regarding the creation of embryos.

As to the second issue related to the destruction of embryos during the research, she further argued that the Dickey-Wicker amendment specifically referred to the embryos in question as organisms, and embryonic stem cells, in her opinion, were not legally organisms because they cannot develop into viable embryos outside a woman’s uterus or, once cultured as stem cells, even inside the uterus (Marshall 1999; Dunn 2005).

Given the legal opinion of Harriet Rabb that established Clinton Administration policy about funding of hESC research, the NIH then began to develop guidelines to fund research, and was ready to begin issuing grants.

Harriet S. Rabb is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, and a 1966 graduate of the Columbia University School of Law. She became the first female dean in the history of the Law School when she was named Dean for Urban Affairs in 1972 and in 1992, given her significant work in civil rights and public interest law, she was appointed Vice Dean of the Faculty. In 1993, she took a leave of absence to serve as General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for eight years, under Secretary Donna Shalala. It was during this period that she addressed the stem cell issue. Currently Ms. Rabb is Vice President and General Counsel at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has served on a number of boards including Human Rights Watch, the Ford Foundation, and The Hastings Center. She also serves on the External Advisory Board of the Columbia University Center for Bioethics.

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