Embryonic stem cell research has a history of controversy in the United States. After the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade in 1973, the US Congress placed a temporary moratorium on the use of federal funds in research that experimented on human fetal tissue through the 1974 National Research Act. As designed, this moratorium was lifted in 1975 when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the precursor to HHS) issued regulations in regard to federally funded research on fetuses. Interestingly, the regulations also covered research on in vitro fertilization (IVF), requiring research applications to be approved by an Ethical Advisory Board (EAB) in order to be federally funded. However, the EAB’s charter expired in 1980 before it approved any individual research studies for federal funding.
In 1988, a new moratorium was put in place in response to clinical research in which fetal tissue was transplanted into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease as a therapy. In early 1993, the Clinton administration lifted the moratorium. Later that year, the US Congress passed the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993, which included a clause that nullified the HHS regulation (previously 45 CFR 46.204(d)), which had mandated that IVF-related research proposals be approved by an EAB in order to receive federal funding. Shortly thereafter, the NIH extended an invitation for research applications regarding IVF, and thus research regarding human embryos. In response, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an addition to appropriations legislation named “The Balanced Budget Downpayment Act, I,” forbade the use of federal funds for the creation of, destruction of, or risk of injury to an embryo for research purposes.
In 2000, the NIH, in consultation with HHS, concluded that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment did not prohibit federal funding of research on embryonic stem cells, so long as the creation and destruction of the embryo (past, present, or future) is accomplished without federal funding (e.g., in private industry). In 2001, President Bush restricted this interpretation to limit federal funds only to research on already-existing lines of stem cells. Though Congress passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Acts of 2005 and 2007, which would have loosened restrictions on stem cell research, President Bush vetoed both bills. However, during this time, several states including New Jersey, California, Connecticut, and Illinois passed state-level legislation allocating funds to stem cell research. In 2009, President Obama eased the Bush-era limitations (Executive Order 13505) by allowing use of federal funds on stem cell research that does not create or destroy embryos. Later that year, the NIH issued “National Institutes of Health Guidelines for Human Stem Cell Research” to implement the executive order. In 2016 the NIH proposed limited changes to the guidelines (SciPol brief available here), but has not yet issued final, updated guidelines. As of publication of this brief, embryonic stem cell research is still subject to these guidelines.
Research on adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, which are adult cells that have been forced to revert to their embryonic stage, does not involve the use of embryos and consequently, is relatively noncontroversial in comparison to embryonic stem cell research.