A judge blocks federal funding for stem cell research

Thursday, August 26, 2010

THIS WEEK, a D.C. federal trial judge put a temporary halt to federally funded research on embryonic stem cells, concluding that current law prohibits the use of such money for work in which an embryo is damaged or destroyed. The decision is unnecessarily disruptive, creating uncertainty about the future of one of the most promising lines of research in recent memory. It also points out the need for Congress to clarify the rules that govern this scientifically important and morally delicate endeavor.

Two scientists who work on adult stem cells sued to stop federal funding for embryonic stem cells, arguing that the Dickey-Wicker amendment passed by Congress in 1996 prohibits such activity. The pertinent part of the amendment bans the use of federal funds for "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 under" applicable federal regulations. The Justice Department rightly noted that federal money is used to fund research only on cells that have already been extracted from human embryos. In other words, the federal government plays no role in the process in which embryos are damaged or destroyed. Such an interpretation has guided the executive branch, including the Bush administration, since 1999.

Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was not convinced. Congress, he concluded, intended to ban any federal funds involving projects in which embryos were damaged. The prohibition did not evaporate because the government merely benefited from, rather than caused, the damage. The consequences of his decision were immediate and deeply unfortunate: The National Institutes of Health suspended funding for new embryonic stem cell projects and put in doubt the funding for those already underway.

We believe the Justice Department has the better of the argument and provides the more accurate reading of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The department plans to challenge the ruling. The federal appeals court should lift the injunction to allow for continuation of federally funded research until the full case can be heard.

Quite apart from the legal process, Congress must step in promptly to articulate clear and principled rules to govern stem cell research. The Dickey-Wicker amendment should either be discarded or rewritten to make clear that the federal government is prohibited from engaging only in acts that directly harm a human embryo. Lawmakers should again take up the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which was introduced last year by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) to codify sensible guidelines adopted by the NIH. Among the provisions: allowing couples to donate embryos created through in vitro fertilization that they do not plan to use; banning human cloning; and prohibiting the creation of human embryos solely for research purposes.

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