A federal judge's decision temporarily blocking the Obama administration's rules on funding embryonic-stem-cell research marks the latest twist in a long-running battle over stem-cell policy.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction Monday, concluding that new federal guidelines violate a law barring federal money from projects that destroy human embryos and that a lawsuit filed by researchers challenging the rules is likely to succeed as it moves through the courts.
The Obama administration declined to comment on the judge's conclusion, and the Justice Department said only that it is studying the opinion. But the renewed focus on the controversy presents a potential hot button for Congress this fall.
Expanding Funding, Drafting Guidelines
Last year, when President Obama signed an executive order clearing the way for expanded federal funding of stem-cell research, hopes were high. His move lifted the strict limits on funding that President George W. Bush had imposed eight years earlier.
"We will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for, and fought for, these past eight years: We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic-stem-cell research," Obama said.
He said stem cells' promise to treat diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes would only be realized with the backing of federal research funds. He acknowledged that using stem cells derived from human embryos raises genuine concerns, but he insisted that the government didn't have to choose between sound science and morality.
"As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering," he said. "I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research — and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly."
The 'Dickey-Wicker' Rule
The National Institutes of Health set about drafting guidelines to spell out which "responsible" research on embryonic stem cells would be eligible for federal funding: only those cells derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures, and only with the donors' consent.
The government still had to contend, though, with the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment, adopted in 1996, two years before research on embryonic stem cells began. It prohibits federal funding of any research in which human embryos are destroyed. The NIH tried to get around that by saying the government would pay not for the extraction of the stem cells, which destroys the embryo, but only for the subsequent research.
Steven Aden of the Alliance Defense Fund didn't buy that argument, and neither did Judge Lamberth.
"If one step of a project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding," Aden said.
Pending Lawsuit By Adult-Stem-Cell Researchers
Aden represented a pair of researchers who study adult stem cells. Those cells are less controversial because they're not derived from embryos, but they may also have less potential. The researchers argued that any money the government spends studying embryonic stem cells could come at the expense of their own, more established work.
"We hope that they will continue to fund, as the Bush administration did, the productive research into adult-stem-cell therapies that has proven to be so promising," Aden said.
Embryonic-stem-cell researchers, however, were deeply disappointed by Lamberth's action. Researchers were counting on federal funds, said Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and now they've been stopped in their tracks.
"It's devastating for researchers who have wanted to use federal funds to pursue this work for more than 10 years," Tipton said. "They have finally gotten a green light, and suddenly the light has turned to red without any warning."
The judge's ruling is preliminary and could be reversed by the courts. Tipton said Congress could also restore the research funding by simply repealing or amending the Dickey-Wicker rule.
"I think the American people have been waiting more than 12 years to get this work going, and they're going to demand congressional action to allow it to continue," Tipton said.
In surveys by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans have consistently said pursuing the promise of embryonic stem cells is more important than protecting leftover embryos.