Lawsuit charges that NIH embryonic stem cell funding policy violates federal law

Sam Casey / Dr. David Stevens
Sam Casey / Dr. David Stevens


A federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines for public funding of human embryonic stem cell research was filed on Wednesday. The suit claims the regulations violate a federal law which bars the institute from funding research in which human embryos are destroyed.

Plaintiffs in the suit include the Christian Medical Association (CMA) and embryo adoption agency Nightlight Christian Adoptions.  Dr. James L. Sherley, a senior scientist at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute and Dr. Theresa Deisher, founder of AVM Biotechnology, are also parties to the suit.

The Alliance Defense Fund is serving as co-counsel on the case and is providing financial support.

Thomas G. Hungar, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the language of the statute is “clear.”

“It bans public funding for any research that leads to the destruction of human embryos. NIH’s attempt to avoid Congress’s command by funding everything but the act of ‘harvesting’ is pure sophistry. The guidelines will result in the destruction of human embryos and are unlawful, unethical, and unnecessary.”

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment has been part of the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services in every year since 1996. It bars federal funding for the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes and also research in which a human embryo or embryos are “destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”

The lawsuit argues that the NIH guidelines violate the law because they “necessarily condition funding on the destruction of human embryos.”

The plaintiffs also allege that the NIH guidelines were invalidly implemented. They charge that the decision to fund embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) was made without the proper procedures required by law and without properly considering other forms of adult and induced pluripotent stem cell research.

Sherley, an expert stem cell researcher and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, said that stem cells derived from human adults and other sources present “the same if not greater potential for medical breakthroughs without any of the troubling legal and ethical issues related to embryonic stem cell research.”

The NIH promulgated its guidelines with a “preconceived determination” to fund ESCR without considering “scientifically and ethically superior alternatives,” the plaintiffs’ legal team charged.

Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association, said his organization is opposed to the “illegal and unethical federal funding of destructive embryo research.” Funding the research would compel every American to cooperate with “unlawful human experimentation” and would violate fundamental research ethics never to lethally experiment on one human being for the benefit of others.

Sam Casey, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and general counsel of Advocates International’s Law of Life Project, reported that the majority of the 50,000 comments that the NIH received were opposed to funding ESCR.

“The so-called spare human embryos being stored in IVF clinics around the United States are not ‘in excess of need,’ as the NIH in its guidelines callously assert. They are human beings in need of biological or adoptive parents,” Casey commented.

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