The Supreme Court said Monday that it would not hear a case challenging the Obama administration's guidelines on embryonic stem-cell research.
The move is certain to delight scientists who are eager to win grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore cures for disease using a broader range of embryonic stem-cell lines. But it disappoints pro-life groups and others who see such research as immoral or ineffective.
Congress passed legislation in 1996 "to ensure that Americans don't pay any more precious taxpayer dollars for needless research made irrelevant by adult stem-cell and other research," said Steven H. Aden, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). "We had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold [the law's] clear intent."
ADF was one of the legal-defense groups representing plaintiffs Dr. James L. Sherley and Theresa Deisher, both scientists whose research uses only adult stem cells.
Their lawsuit, Sherley v. Sebelius, revolved around the 1996 Dickey-Wicker amendment, which prohibits taxpayer funding for research that destroys, discards or harms a human embryo. The law has enabled private companies, which do not take federal funds, to become leaders in embryonic stem-cell research.
In 2001, the George W. Bush administration eased the policy, permitting federally funded researchers to use embryonic stem-cells derived from some 60 already existing stem-cell lines.
When President Obama took office, he soon rescinded the Bush policy and asked for the Department of Health and Human Services to craft ethically responsible guidelines that would lead to more government-funded embryonic stem-cell research. The new regulations, for instance, permitted researchers to use stem cells from frozen human embryos donated for research by couples who were using fertility clinics.
The two scientists claimed that these regulations violated the 1996 law, and hurt them because it reduced access to federal grants among scientists like themselves who use only adult stem cells. The court dismissed that claim without comment.
In addition to the two plaintiff scientists, the Sherley case was of great interest to embryo-adoption agencies, families who have given birth to "snowflake" children from donated frozen embryos, and pro-life groups that object to destruction of human life.
A flurry of court rulings ended with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissing the case, in favor of the government.
The Supreme Court's decision Monday means that federal funding will flow to researchers for the foreseeable future.
Many scientists think embryonic stem cells can be manipulated in ways that will cure such maladies as spinal-cord injuries and Parkinson's disease.
Pro-life groups and their allies counter that adult stem cells are a proven way to develop treatments, and a process using "induced pluripotent stem cells," which doesn't involve human embryos, is also likely to be a superior route to find cures.
Separately, the Supreme Court also denied consideration of a lawsuit over Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules on advocacy campaigns.
In 2008, a small nonprofit group named the Real Truth About Obama (later renamed the Real Truth About Abortion) had planned to run two ads critical of Mr. Obama's pro-choice record on abortion. However, the group felt "chilled" in its fundraising plans because it thought it would be deemed a political action committee, and be subjected to a federal investigation and donor-disclosure rules.
Federal courts ultimately agreed with the FEC that its rules were "a sensible approach," and the Supreme Court's decision leaves them intact.
James Bopp, who represented the plaintiffs, is the same lawyer who brought the Citizens United case against the FEC; that 2010 case led to a ruling that it was unconstitutional to limit political spending by corporations and unions.
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