By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
In what some are calling a “stinging rebuke” of the Obama Administration, a federal court judge rule yesterday that the president’s executive order allowing embryos to be used in stem cell research violated an existing law prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds in research that involves the destruction of human embryos.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), co-counsel in the lawsuit, Sherley v. Sebelius, won a strategic victory yesterday when Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia put a halt on an executive order signed into law by President Obama in March 2009 which rescinded limitations on federally funded embryonic stem cell research put in place by President George W. Bush. The court concluded that the order is likely to be in violation of a 1996 federal law known as the “Dickey-Wicker Amendment” which prohibits the use of taxpayer money for any research “in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”
In new rules announced last year after the president issued the order, the government was given permission to finance research into any existing embryonic stem cell lines and into lines created by using embryos discarded by fertility clinics for which unpaid donors gave permission. The Administration claimed these rules abided by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment because federal money would only be used once the embryonic stem cells were created but would not finance the process by which the embryos were destroyed.
The judge, who was appointed during the Reagan Administration, apparently saw through this legislative hairsplitting, calling it “meaningless,” and saying that embryonic stem cell research “necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo.”
“If one step or ‘piece of research’ of an E.S.C. [embryonic stem cell] research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding,” he decided.
“Because ESC research requires the derivation of ESCs, ESC research is research in which an embryo is destroyed. Accordingly, the Court concludes that, by allowing federal funding of ESC research, the Guidelines are in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”
As a result of the ruling, the whole business of federally funded embryonic stem cell research was ordered to return to the “status quo”, meaning that for now the National Institutes for Health must discontinue the issuing of grants to embryonic stem cell research projects – many of which are already underway.
According to The New York Times, the ruling sent scientists scrambling last night to assess the ruling’s immediate impact on their work.
“I have had to tell everyone in my lab that when they feed their cells tomorrow morning, they better use media that has not been funded by the federal government,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, referring to food given to cells. “This ruling means an immediate disruption of dozens of labs doing this work since the Obama administration made its order.”
Dr. Irving L. Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, told the Times the ruling was “devastating to the hopes of researchers and patients who have been waiting so long for the promise of stem cell therapies.”
However, others are hoping the ruling might put a stop to the destruction of human life as well as help divert much needed funding to adult stem cell research, which is much more advanced than embryonic research and already being used to treat patients for more than 100 conditions.
“The American people should not be forced to pay for experiments – prohibited by federal law – that destroy human life. The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Steven H. Aden. “No one should be allowed to decide that an innocent life is worthless. Experimentation on embryonic stem cells isn’t even necessary because adult stem cell research has been enormously successful. In economic times like we are in now, it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to use precious taxpayer dollars for this illegal and unethical purpose.”
Family Research Council (FRC) president Tony Perkins called the ruling “a stinging rebuke to the Obama Administration and its attempt to circumvent sound science and federal law, which clearly prohibits federal funding for research that involves the destruction of human embryos.”
“Embryonic stem cell research is irresponsible and scientifically unworthy,” Perkins said. “When drafting their guidelines, the NIH ignored the majority of public input, including FRC ‘s own extensive comments. The NIH guidelines implemented a plan that forced taxpayers to foot the bill for research that is human embryo destructive.
“Rather than fund additional embryo-destructive research, the government should focus its resources on adult stem cells that are already improving health and saving the lives of patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injury and many other conditions. There is great potential in this country for stem cell research and treatments for many diseases, while maintaining ethical standards.”
The Obama Administration plans to appeal the ruling and calls for the repeal of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by liberal lawmakers is expected to be heard once again.
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