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A researcher expands human embryonic stem cells under a microscope at the University of Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Associated Press/Photo by Paul Sancya (file)
A researcher expands human embryonic stem cells under a microscope at the University of Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Case dismissed

Supreme Court | The high court allows President Obama’s expansion of embryonic stem cell research to stand

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the Obama administration’s funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Two adult stem cell researchers challenged the law, arguing that the administration’s embryonic stem cell policy violates the Dickey-Wicker Amendment that forbids federal funding for projects that destroy embryos. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, who argued on behalf of the two researchers, said the success of adult stem cell research has made research on embryonic stem cells “irrelevant.” 

The Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case came without comment. The dismissal means that the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upholding the Obama administration policy will stand.

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President George W. Bush authorized federal research on embryonic stem cells, but only for cell lines where embryos had already been destroyed. President Barack Obama expanded that authorization in 2009, allowing federal research on embryonic stem cells as long as the embryos were already going to be discarded and the parents had consented to the destruction.

The new National Institute of Health (NIH) guidelines under President Obama said a federal researcher could not be involved in the decision to destroy the embryo, but could use that embryo for research once destroyed. In other words, private funds would need to destroy the embryos but then federal funds could research those destroyed embryos.

Some scientists in favor of embryonic stem cell research have complained about the guidelines under Obama. Several said in a Washington Post article in 2010 that their research would be potentially delayed for years by the new approval process. Each cell line that scientists want to research using federal funds must be approved under the new guidelines, which require verification about the origins of the embryos—that there was parental consent and that the embryos were already designated for destruction. Those new requirements prompted one pro-embryonic research scientist to say the situation was “worse” than under the Bush administration.

When the guidelines were issued in 2009, a few Christian leaders applauded the administration’s restraint in expanding the research. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said at the time that the guidelines “embody caution and care that respect pro-life values.” Robert George, a Catholic jurisprudence professor at Princeton University, opposed Obama’s original reversal of the Bush stem-cell restrictions, but he said when the new NIH restrictions were released that they would keep researchers from going “over a precipice.” The Family Research Council, though, said the guidelines encouraged researchers to “cannibalize” leftover embryos. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys challenging that policy on behalf of the two scientists argued that the guidelines gave incentive to destroy embryos, thus violating Dickey-Wicker. They also argued that the line between those destroying the embryos and the federal researchers using the destroyed embryos was fuzzy. But the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court rejected those arguments. 

Embryonic stem cells so far have produced few breakthroughs. In 2011, Geron Corp., one of the only companies doing experimental therapy derived from human embryonic stem cells, abruptly ended its program because of “capital scarcity and uncertain economic conditions.”

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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