WASHINGTON — The federal government is appealing a temporary court order that halts federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research using new stem-cell lines.
The injunction, granted by Washington, D.C., federal Judge Royce Lamberth in response to an action launched by several pro-life groups and two Christian adult stem cell researchers, might even stop research using lines approved by President George W. Bush in 2001.
Judge Lamberth found on Aug. 23 that the National Institutes of Health’s approval of 75 human embryonic stem-cell lines for federal funding violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a rider which Congress has added to various appropriations bills every year since 1995 to prohibit federal research that is lethal to embryos.
The NIH action was an implementation of a 2009 order from President Barack Obama, and his administration immediately promised to appeal the injunction.
The appeal was filed on Aug. 31, claiming that “numerous ongoing projects will likely not survive even a temporary gap in funds, jeopardizing both the potential benefit of the research and the hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds already invested in it.”
The Politico news website reported deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton saying that the president “thinks that we need to do [human embryonic] stem-cell research, and he thinks his policy is the right one.”
But Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the federal court injunction against the Obama administration’s policy, calling the ruling a “victory for common sense and sound medical ethics.”
The lawsuit was brought last year on behalf of a Christian adoption agency; two stem-cell scientists, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher; embryos and others. The court found that only the two scientists had “standing” to bring what amounted to an emergency lawsuit because the other plaintiffs would suffer no immediate or “irreparable” injury by having to wait until the lawsuit goes to trial.
Sherley, a Baptist and a researcher at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Deisher, a Catholic who runs Seattle-based AVM Biotechnology, were granted standing on the basis that their work on adult human embryonic stem cells would suffer “irreparably” unless the expansion of human embryonic stem-cell research were halted immediately.
Reasoned the court: Researchers in adult and embryonic stem-cell research were competing for the same federal dollars, but only researchers of adult stem cells relied almost entirely on public funding, while embryonic stem-cell scientists stood a chance of getting private money.
But granting the two scientists “standing” only got their legal foot in the door.
The meat of Lamberth’s decision is that the Obama-ordered expansion of embryonic stem-cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
“The language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” wrote Lamberth, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. “ESC research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed.”
Reached in Seattle, Deisher declined to comment. In an e-mail she sent to friends relaying news of the victory, however, she led with two words: “Praise God.”
Deisher, whose research paradigm is to work within the life ethic of the Church, is currently studying links between autism and vaccines made by using embryonic stem cells.
In a previous interview with the Register, she said that while adult stem cells had been used for decades in successful treatment of humans, the experimental treatment of animals with embryonic stem cells produced dangerous side effects and when used with humans would end in “disaster.”
Nonetheless, a group of medical research foundations swiftly condemned the Lamberth injunction. Declared Lisa Hughes, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research: “[The] Federal District Court injunction halting federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research is a blow to the hopes of millions of patients and their families suffering from fatal and chronic diseases and disorders.”
Hughes added, “CAMR, and the patients and researchers we represent, remain committed to supporting all stem-cell research and the search for cures that might be discovered from these essential research tools.”
NIH director Francis Collins said the injunction “had poured sand in the engines of discovery” by stopping $54 million in NIH research grants due to be issued in September.
Meanwhile, $131 million in NIH research grants for human embryonic stem-cell research has already been issued and won’t be taken back.
Bush’s Stem Cells
The question remains as to whether the injunction applies to research using the lines approved by President Bush in a 2001 order. Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, one of three pro-life legal organizations that acted for the plaintiffs, told the Register, “The Bush regulation from 2001 doesn’t exist anymore because it was rescinded by the Obama administration, and it is not resurrected by the preliminary injunction because the order in this case only prohibits funding ESC research under the Obama guidelines from 2009.”
The Bush order never provoked a legal action from pro-lifers because it limited research to the use of stem-cell lines derived before Aug. 9, 2001 — preventing the grants from encouraging any more embryo-killing and violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
The fact that the injunction is temporary does not mean it is necessarily short-lived. Unless it is successfully appealed, it will stand until the D.C. federal court makes a final ruling on the case for a permanent injunction, said Bowman.
Legal experts supportive of embryonic stem-cell research are also urging Congress to take action by either repealing Dickey-Wicker or passing legislation specifically enabling human embryonic stem-cell research. A recent poll released by Rasmussen Reports indicates 57% of Americans oppose public funding for embryonic stem-cell research, though only 23% believe it to be immoral. This suggests the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is safe for now.
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.