President Barack Obama’s support for embryonic stem cell (ESC) research suffered a serious setback this week when a federal judge ruled that a Presidential order permitting such research clashed with a Congressional ban on the use of government money for such purposes.
In a judgement that could result in the government-run National Institutes of Health (NIH) being barred from issuing funding grants for ESC research, Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia said that he had granted a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs in the case, including the Christian Medical Association and Nightlight Christian Adoptions.
In doing so, Judge Lamberth argued that the will of Congress, as expressed in the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, was to prohibit federal funding of research in which human embryos were destroyed. Accordingly, the Judge said, it was in the public interest to stop the government from implementing its current policy on ESC. Under this policy NIH “may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem research, to the extent permitted by law”.
The latest ruling however held as invalid the distinction that the government sought to make between the process of embryonic destruction and the results of that destruction. In particular, Judge Lamberth said, “Despite defendants’ attempt to separate the derivation of ESCs from research on the ESCs, the two cannot be separated... Simply because ESC research involves multiple steps does not mean that each step is a separate “piece of research” that may be federally funded, provided the step does not result in the destruction of an embryo.”
He added that if even a single step or “piece of research” of an ESC research project resulted in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project ought to be precluded from receiving federal funding under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
Injunction preserves ‘status quo’
In terms of its immediate impact, Judge Lamberth however said that the injunction would not seriously harm ESC researchers because the injunction would simply preserve the status quo and would not interfere with their ability to obtain private funding for research. Further, he downplayed the impact that the stoppage of such research could have on individuals suffering from illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, saying that the possibility of the research leading to their treatment was “speculative”.
Meanwhile the ruling sent shockwaves through the ESC research community with George Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, quoted as saying, “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.” In a response to the ruling sent to the New York Times Tracy Schmaler of the United States Justice Department said, “We are reviewing the decision.”