The legal mess around embryonic stem cell research just got messier. Yesterday a U.S. district judge ruled that President Obama’s expansion of federal financing for the research, enacted last year when he lifted the Bush-era restrictions on creating new stem cell lines, was a violation of federal law.
Judge Lamberth ruled that the administration’s policy violated the clear language of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law passed annually by Congress that bans federal financing for any “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death” [The New York Times].
Here’s the gist of what happened: The Obama Administration said that its policy fit with Dickey-Wicker because no federal dollars financed the destruction of embryos. Under the new rules the few stem cell lines approved by the Bush administration were OK, and so were new ones from embryos that had already been discarded because they weren’t needed for fertility treatments anymore—if the donors had given their consent to the embryos being used for research purposes. In this compromise position, taxpayer money wouldn’t be used to create new stem cell lines from embryos, but federally funded researchers could work with new stem cell lines created by privately financed scientists.
Judge Royce Lamberth, however, interpreted the law to mean that federal money couldn’t fund any research that involved discarded embryos, no matter if a penny of taxpayer money went to creating the stem cell lines or how long it had been since those embryos were discarded.
Research is a long, continuous process that can’t be partitioned into discrete pieces, Lamberth wrote. If Congress meant to prohibit funding only for specific scientific acts, it could have said so. “Congress, however, has not written the statute that way, and this Court is bound to apply the law as it is written,” the ruling said [Los Angeles Times].
The Department of Justice says it is reviewing the ruling, which could make a mess of research funding. By Lamberth’s reading of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, even some of the work done under the Bush Administration might have been illegal because sometime, somewhere, at some point embryos had been destroyed to make the stem cell lines, even though the Bush rules didn’t allow any new embryo use.
According the Wall Street Journal, the government currently spends more than $100 million per year on embryonic stem cell research. The fate of present projects remains unclear—and for the time being, researchers have to pay even more attention to what test-tubes they touch with federally funded instruments while the government works out what to do.
“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,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston, referring 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” [The New York Times].
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