Court case and congressional inaction put embryonic stem cell research in limbo

President Barack Obama Human Embryonic Stem Cells CNA US Catholic News 12 9 10 President Barack Obama

The fate of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research remains in question as a federal appellate panel considers its legality. Pro-life leaders have backed broad restrictions on the funding, saying congressional inaction is due both to uncertainty and to the success of adult stem cell research.

In August federal district judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the funding violated the 1995 Dickey-Wicker Amendment. In Dec. 6 court arguments, a lawyer for two scientists who filed the lawsuit said federal grants for the research encourage the private sector to create more of the cells.

"There is now an incentive for the future destruction of human embryos," said the scientists' lawyer Thomas Hunger, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Justice Department lawyer Beth Brinkmann, arguing on behalf of the Obama administration, said that Congress intended to distinguish between promoting the study of embryonic stem cells and paying to create them.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibits taxpayer funding from being used to destroy embryos. President Obama’s present policy holds that the research can be funded so long as the embryos were destroyed using private money.

A congressional bill sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) could allow funding for the research. She told The Hill that her bill is “still not off the table” during the lame-duck session of Congress, but that  it's an issue of timing. The House leadership sees no point in passing the legislation if it will not also advance in the Senate.

Co-sponsor Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) said the legislation is less likely to pass each day and he is “not exactly holding my breath.”

DeGette said that “real results” of the research are now becoming visible, citing two human-subject studies approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the past two months. She also was optimistic about her legislation’s future, saying a recent Harris Interactive poll found 72 percent of Americans favor using embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures for medical research.

However, pro-life leaders were critical of these efforts.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, commented that Judge Lamberth has “exactly the correct view” of the law.

“We’ve always said the Dickey Amendment … forbids funding any research that relies upon destroying human embryos,” he told CNA on Dec. 9. While both the Clinton and Obama administrations have read the law “very narrowly,” the bishops’ conference and the amendment’s sponsors have said its restrictions are broader.

Asked whether Judge Lamberth’s decision would mean a return to a Bush-era stem cell funding policy, Doerflinger said it would create “a vacuum” and result in no policy for funding research involving stem cells from destroyed embryos.

“We don’t know what the final decision will look like. It may be that the decision allows a window for reinstating the Bush policy.

“But right now there’s no Bush policy to refer to. It was canceled out,” he added, saying President Obama would have to consider what is possible within the law or would have to support an effort to change the law.

Doerflinger said that proponents of embryonic stem cell research have not passed legislation allowing the research funding because there is “uncertainty” about whether such legislation is necessary since the court decision is unresolved.

“This court case is going to wend its way through the system for some time to come. So they don’t know whether they even need to go through that battle.”

He added that the “lame duck” congressional session will end soon and other “must-pass” bills have top priority.

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“So they’re tending to edge out any action on embryonic stem cells.”

Anna Franzonello, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, told CNA on Dec. 9 that her organization is “hopeful” that Judge Lamberth’s decision will be upheld.

She similarly credited the legislative failure to a political climate in which economic issues are more prominent. She also referred to a Rasmussen poll which reported that 57 percent of likely voters opposed using their tax dollars for the research.

“It’s not a secret that embryonic stem cell research has not been successful, but adult stem cell research has,” she continued. “People are concerned about money going to things that are effective and not failed policies.”

Opposing the research is “sound ethics” but also “sound policy from a fiscal standpoint as well.”

She acknowledged the possibility that the failure of embryonic stem cell research is resonating with members of Congress and the Obama administration.

“Even people who used to support embryonic stem cell research have come out and said it is not necessary, and actually obsolete,” Franzonello continued. She named former National Institutes of Health director Bernardine Healy as one person who has reconsidered the need for the research.

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Doerflinger noted that there will be increased pro-life voting margins in both the House and the Senate in the next Congress. There will be “a decent chance” of stopping House legislation that would fund the research.

“Our hope is that if the courts do the right thing and read this legislation the way it was intended, we can then stop any new legislation from coming in and changing the law to reinstate the funding of destructive research.”

He added that the ethical issues involved in the research are hard for many people to appreciate because the embryos are at an early stage of development and their creation in a laboratory has a “depersonalizing” effect.

“But the fact is that each of us was once an embryo just that small,” he said. “The educational challenge is to help people to get past their aesthetic feelings and to a real appreciation of the truth about the beginning of human life.”