According to a ruling Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, U.S. law forbids federal funding of any scientific research using human embryonic stem cells. The decision invalidates an executive order issued by President Obama shortly after taking office in 2009 that expanded federal support for such research, and for that reason was quickly applauded by the Family Research Council and other right-to-life groups.
In issuing a preliminary injunction against such funding, Lamberth cited a law dating back to 1996 that forbids federal funding of “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” Until now, that law had been read to prohibit federal funding for the actual creation of embryonic stem cell lines — which requires the destruction of an embryo — but not subsequent research into the use of those stem cells.
Had it been in effect at the time, Lamberth’s ruling would also have invalidated the stem-cell policy of President Bush, who limited federally funded stem-cell research to 21 already-existing embryonic cell lines. However, those lines also were created through the destruction of embryos, and by Lamberth’s logic were thus ineligible for federal funding.
Under Obama’s policy, stem cell lines could be derived only from embryos that had been created for use in fertility treatments and were no longer needed for that purpose. That safeguard was intended to prevent the creation of embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them. Those embryos also had to be “donated by the individuals who sought reproductive treatment . . . and who gave voluntary written consent for the human embryos to be used for research purposes.” It also barred any financial compensation or inducement for donating embryos for research.
Lamberth’s ruling dismisses those safeguards as meaningless.
According to The Washington Post, the decision has stunned much of the scientific community.
“This is devastating, absolutely devastating,” said Amy Comstock Rick, immediate past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of patient organizations that has been lobbying for more federal funding.
“We were really looking forward to research finally moving forward with the full backing of the NIH. We were really looking forward to the next chapter when human embryonic stem cells could really be explored for their full potential. This really sets us back,” Rick said. “Every day we lose is another day lost for patients waiting for cures.”
“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,” Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, told The New York Times. (”Media” refers 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.”
It’s not clear whether Lamberth’s ruling will hold. Courts have the power to intervene in such matters only if the executive branch is clearly and unambiguously breaking the law. Three consecutive administrations have concluded otherwise, believing that research using stem cell lines can and should be distinguished from research using embryos.
And as a practical matter, it’s hard to see what right-to-life groups have gained in the ruling. A significant number of human embryos created in vitro for fertility treatments are destroyed or abandoned every day in this country. It’s an inevitable by-product of the process. The odds against any single embryo implanting in the womb are so high that large numbers of embryos have to be created in hopes that one or two will be successful. Once pregnancy is achieved, any leftover embryos are literally put into cold storage for possible future use, and many are left there until discarded.
The Obama administration will almost certainly appeal the ruling and seek to block the preliminary injunction, although no announcement to that effect has been made. It may also try to correct the problem through Congress, which would put the volatile issue in the political arena. If it takes that tack, the administration would seem to have public opinion on its side.
“A 2009 poll by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 54% of adults think it’s more important to conduct the research that might result in medical cures vs. 32% who said it was more important not to destroy the potential life of a human embryo.”