In an unexpected blow to the Obama administration-and a limited victory for pro-lifers-U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth on Aug. 23 indefinitely blocked federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells (ESCs). The ruling, which administration officials quickly promised to appeal, resulted from a lawsuit filed several months after President Obama greenlighted new ESC lines for taxpayer support in a March 2009 executive order. The judge's injunction froze $54 million in grant money that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would likely have released in September.
Scientists who were anticipating that money to continue their ESC research were caught off guard, but the NIH told scientists they could continue using ESC grant money they had already received ($131 million so far this year). NIH director Francis Collins-a codefendant in the suit with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius-complained the court's decision had "just poured sand into the engine of discovery."
What Judge Lamberth's ruling poured out was essentially a fresh interpretation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law prohibiting federal funding of "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death." HHS has argued since 1999 that the word research in the law should be understood to exclude research that happens after the embryo is destroyed. It said experimenting with ESCs is not the same as deriving them. The judge disagreed: "The two cannot be separated." Lamberth recognized that the destruction of embryos is an integral step of embryonic stem-cell research, said Anna Franzonello, an attorney for Americans United for Life, and that's key: Although the government does not fund directly the destruction of human embryos, it creates an obvious incentive for other parties to do so. Without the destruction, there are no stem-cell lines for research. For a couple of months the government's appeal will likely stall the question of whether the injunction could become permanent.
-with reporting by Angela Lu