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Appeals Court Lifts Ban on Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Appeals Court Lifts Ban on Federal Funding of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

May 2, 2011 — A federal appeals court ruling on Friday lifted an injunction issued by a lower court that prohibited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the New York Times reports. The decision, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sends the original case back to Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., and allows research to continue pending conclusion of the case (Harris, New York Times, 4/29).

The original case was filed in 2009 by two researchers -- Theresa Deisher and James Sherley against a new policy issued by the Obama administration that reversed earlier prohibitions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and allowed more research projects to qualify for federal funding. The researchers, who use only adult stem cells, argued that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment. According to the Washington Post, that amendment bans government-funded "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk or injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero" (Quentin Wilber, Washington Post, 4/29).

Lamberth in August 2010 issued an immediate ban on federal spending on such research in anticipation that the administration would lose the case. The government appealed that decision, and the appeals court stopped the ban from going into effect while it reviewed the case (New York Times, 4/29).

The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, agreed with the government on technical grounds. Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that the law uses the present tense, which "strongly suggests it does not extend to past actions," including the prior destruction of embryos (Washington Post, 4/29). He added that "although Dickey-Wicker bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an [embryonic stem cell] from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC will be used" (Bunis, CQ HealthBeat, 4/29).

Mixed Reactions to Ruling Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said, "This is a momentous day not only for science but for the hopes of thousands of patients and their families who are relying on NIH-funded scientists to pursue life-saving discoveries and therapies that could come from stem cell research."

David Prentice of the Family Research Council said he was disappointed with the ruling, adding, "Federal taxpayer funds should go towards helping patients first, not unethical experiments" (New York Times, 4/29).