The Obama administration will appeal a ruling by a federal judge that temporarily blocks federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the Justice Department confirmed on Tuesday.
Department spokesman Matthew Miller said an appeal in the case would likely be filed later this week asking the court to lift a preliminary injunction ordered Monday by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who sided with a coalition of researchers and Christian groups to put on hold the administration’s new guidelines on human embryonic stem cell research.
The ruling dealt the White House a serious setback in its efforts to provide federal funding for the highly sensitive research.
Judge Lamberth granted the preliminary injunction after ruling that President Obama’s executive order likely violated federal law.
“Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue — whether federal funds may be used for research in which an embryo is destroyed,” the judge said. “Thus, as demonstrated by the plain language of the statute, the unambiguous intent of Congress is to prohibit the expenditure of federal funds on ‘research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.’”
Judge Lamberth said in his ruling that once the question of the law is decided, the fact question “is whether [embryonic stem cell] research is research in which a human embryo is destroyed. The court concludes that it is.”
Federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars to destroy a human embryo, and culling stem cells from an embryo does destroy the embryo.
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research have argued that it holds out the possibility of medical breakthroughs for some of the most difficult challenges in the medical field today, from spinal-cord injury to diabetes to Parkinson’s disease, all of which have resisted traditional treatment. They also have noted that once created, stem cells can reproduce indefinitely in laboratories.
Opponents argue that the source of the cells are living human embryos that must be destroyed in the process of taking their stem cells out of their bodies for the research. They also have said that fetal cord blood cells have already proven successful.
The National Institutes of Health said on Tuesday that researchers who already had received $131 million in government funding would continue their work, but other projects — as many as 22 due to cost $54 million — would be stopped.
In his March 2009 executive order, Mr. Obama lifted the Bush administration’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton on Tuesday said the administration is exploring all possible avenues “to make sure that we can continue to do this critical lifesaving research.” He said one of the possibilities being explored was new legislation by Congress to counter Judge Lamberth’s ruling.
Mr. Burton said the president “thinks that we need to do research, he put forward stringent ethical guidelines, and he thinks that his policy’s the right one.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who serves as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor And Pensions Committee, said he would hold hearings on the court ruling as soon as Congress returns next month.
Steven H. Aden, a counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, one of the conservative groups that provided legal help in the case, said taxpayers “should not be forced to pay for experiments — prohibited by federal law — that destroy human life.”
“The court is simply enforcing an existing law passed by Congress that prevents Americans from paying another penny for needless research on human embryos,” he said.
Attorneys for the Justice Department had argued in the case that the destruction of an embryo and research on the destroyed embryo should be viewed as separate legal acts.
The NIH guidelines “recognize the distinction … between the derivation of stem cells from an embryo that results in the embryo’s destruction, for which federal funding is prohibited, and research involving [stem cells] that does not involve an embryo nor result in an embryo’s destruction, for which federal funding is permitted,” according to the defense brief.
Judge Lamberth, named to the bench in 1987 by President Reagan, rejected that argument, saying if one step or a piece of research of an embryonic stem cell research project results in the destruction of an embryo, “the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”
The decision leaves the Obama administration with a choice: whether to continue to fight the lawsuit, despite the strong likelihood of success, or take advantage of the strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, likely to be thinned in the upcoming midterm elections, to repeal the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
First introduced in 1995 and signed by President Clinton, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment has been included every year since then in the appropriations bills funding the Health and Human Services Department. It was named for its two Republican House sponsors, Reps. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, who is no longer in Congress, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who now serves in the Senate.