The courts have been less than friendly to pro-life causes in the past — see Roe v. Wade — but this week’s ruling came as a resounding victory for those opposed to spending federal dollars on embryonic stem cell research.
While proponents of the practice fear that a drawn-out legal fight will devastate biomedical research for years, pro-life advocates argue that it will spur much-needed work in the adult stem cell field.
“The science with embryonic stem cells is not progressing really at all,” said Dr. David Prentice, the Family Research Council’s senior fellow for life sciences. “In the meantime, patients have been successfully treated with adult stem cells.”
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth on Tuesday slapped a preliminary injunction on federal funding of stem cell research using human embryos, therefore cutting off the life’s blood to a field of scientific inquiry heavily dependent on government research dollars.
“This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, and at the time when we were really gaining momentum,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which drew up the guidelines last year for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 overturning the Bush administration’s limits on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.
Given that no court date has been set in the effort to lift the injunction, and that any decision is likely to be appealed, it could be years of legal wrangling before the fight is resolved. Both sides agree that such a lengthy delay could stunt U.S. research into embryonic stem cells just as the field is taking root.
“This is going to throw a monkey wrench in embryonic research for a while,” Dr. Prentice said.
The injunction halts new federal grants in the short run and may well discourage private donors from investing in such research, which has been heralded as the key for unlocking new treatments for diseases.
“There’s a fear that this is going to have a chilling long-term impact on research,” said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “In biomedical research, federal money is an essential foundation.”
Without federal funding, he said, the message to young scientists is, “Go elsewhere.”
The result could be that countries such as Australia, England and China, which have been more supportive of embryonic stem cell research, wind up attracting top scientific minds from U.S. schools.
Given the likelihood of a protracted battle, look for Congress to become involved. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, has said that he plans to hold hearings in his appropriations subcommittee when Congress reconvenes Sept. 16.
The obvious move would be to jettison the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment, which bans federal funding for research that involves the destruction of embryos. That amendment was the basis of Judge Lamberth’s decision to issue the injunction.
Dickey-Wicker has been included in every Health and Human Services Department budget since 1996, and while its support comes mainly from Republicans, it also has the backing of some Democrats.
“It’s a difficult area. Whether we’ve had Democrat or Republican congresses or administrations, Congress has stuck to putting Dickey-Wicker in,” said Dr. Prentice. “Even President Obama signed off on it in last year’s budget.”
An alternative would be to pass legislation to override Dickey-Wicker. Such a bill could be one introduced earlier by Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, which would codify the current NIH regulations on embryonic stem cell research grants.
Then again, Congress may hesitate to take on stem cell research in an election year. Democrats are projected to lose seats in the House and Senate, and lawmakers may prefer to avoid throwing red meat to the Republican Party’s conservative base before Nov. 2.
The problem is, if Democrats lose their majorities in one chamber, their chances of jettisoning Dickey-Wicker drop precipitously.
“You’re getting into a very sensitive area when you start talking about human life,” said Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life. “I would be shocked if they mess with this before November. And then after November, I don’t think they have a prayer.”