3895511548_7102e46a91You’ve probably heard by now that a federal court issued a temporary injunction earlier this week, precluding the federal government from funding any research project involving embryonic stem cells. This post attempts to break down the legal basis for the ruling, and what it means for the Obama administration’s plans for stem cell research.

The injunction was issued by the the Chief Judge of the D.C. District Court, Royce Lamberth. Lamberth ruled that President Obama’s March 9, 2009 Executive Order allowing funding of embryonic stem cell research violated an amendment to a 1996 appropriations bill (frequently called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment), which prohibits federal funding for research involving:

(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or

(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero

The controversy in the case was over a set of draft NIH guidelines issued on April 23, 2009, which authorized “funding for research using human embryonic stem cells that were derived from human embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and were no longer needed for that purpose.” Chief Judge Lamberth held that “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,” and rejected the government’s distinction between entire research projects involving embryonic stem cells, and the pieces of those projects involving the destruction of embryos.

Regardless of the wisdom of funding embryonic stem cell research, I tend to agree that the language of the Dickey-Wicker amendment is unambiguous, and does not support a distinction between research and pieces of research. The Obama administration has vowed to appeal the decision, however and at least some experts believe that the D.C. Circuit could reverse Lamberth’s ruling. Absent a reversal from the D.C. Circuit, if President Obama is serious about supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, he will have to lean on Congress to remove the Dickey-Wicker amendment from subsequent appropriations bills.

Of course, with many experts predicting big losses for Congressional Democrats in November, such action would have to come sooner rather than later. But with embryonic stem cell research being a hot-button issue for many voters, Congress will likely cover their ears and sing a chorus or two of the status quo before packing up for the year.

For more information on the temporary injunction, read the full opinion.

Kevin Lumpkin

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