A U.S. district court today halted the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, saying it involves the destruction of human embryos, potentially re-igniting a longtime cultural hot button issue just in time for the fall elections.
The Washington-based court was ruling in favor of a June lawsuit filed by a researcher objecting to President Obama’s policy allowing federal funding. Obama overturned former President George W. Bush’s policy by implementing new National Institutes of Health guidelines shortly after taking office. Obama’s March 2009 decision reversed Bush’s August 2001 actions. Congress twice tried to circumvent Bush, passing a bill allowing for federal funding, but Bush vetoed the measure each time.
When signing the executive order, Obama talked about the “difficult and delicate balance” of such research, which could lead to “medical miracles” but also upsets many people who believe the process ends a life. The president said that research has great potential and “with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.”
But in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research - and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth — who initially threw the suit out, but found it in his court again when an appeals court ruled the plaintiffs did have grounds to sue — today ordered that the NIH and Department of Health and Human Services are “enjoined from implementing, applying, or taking any action whatsoever” as it relates to the guidelines, “or otherwise funding research involving human embryonic stem cells as contemplated in the guidelines.”
Key to Lamberth’s ruling is Congress’ Dickey-Wicker amendment, which made federal funding illegal to begin with. Here’s how the New York Times described it last spring:
The ban, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, first became law in 1996, and has been renewed by Congress every year since. It specifically bans the use of tax dollars to create human embryos — a practice that is routine in private fertility clinics — or for research in which embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury.
At first, the ban stood in the way of taxpayer-financed embryonic stem cell research, because embryos are destroyed when stem cells are extracted from them. But in August 2001, in a careful compromise, President Bush opened the door a tiny crack, by ordering that tax dollars could be used for studies on a small number of lines, or colonies, of stem cells already extracted from embryos — so long as federal researchers did not do the extraction themselves.
The ruling was such a surprise that several organizations who are considered experts on stem cell research hadn’t even heard about it when contacted by TPM for reaction. But once they studied up on the ruling, they said long legal battles are expected to go on.
A representative for one of those groups who declined to be named said most stem cell research advocates have long believed the issue is far from settled. “Until there is some final determination on this, this is going to keep going through the courts,” the source said.
Bloomberg reported last fall that the pro-life groups who brought the lawsuit, including an embryo-adoption agency and the Christian Medical Association, were told by the same judge their case didn’t have standing.
“Embryos lack standing because they are not persons under the law” and the unborn have no right to life protected under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, Lamberth ruled, Bloomberg reported.
The White House and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department is reviewing the ruling, DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.
Read Lamberth’s ruling here:
Additional reporting by Ryan J. Reilly and Rachel Slajda