The Obama administration has no choice but to appeal a recent decision by a federal trial judge that temporarily suspends federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The ruling is a cramped reading of a federal law that bans the use of government funds when an embryo is destroyed, and it would stall essential medical research.
There is an overwhelming consensus within the biomedical research community that stem cell research is exceedingly promising, and while progress has been made on using adult stem cells, those taken from embryos that have the capacity to be made into any human tissue are vital to ongoing research. That means Congress has to act. Current law needs to be rewritten to more clearly green-light this kind of research.
The consequences of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's ruling were swift. The National Institutes of Health announced it was suspending funding for any new experiments involving human embryonic stem cells — grants that are the lifeblood of biomedical research. Without NIH funds, new experiments won't be endeavored and long-term research will be put in jeopardy. The NIH estimates that 22 grants totaling $54 million due for renewal in September will be cut off, as well as dozens of other outstanding requests.
The cause of all this is the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment, a measure initially passed by Congress in 1996 that prohibits the use of federal funds for research in which a human embryo is destroyed or discarded. Since 1999, and even throughout George W. Bush's presidency, this has been interpreted to mean that the federal government can fund research on embryonic stem cells as long as the process of extracting the cells from an embryo — and thereby destroying it — is paid for privately.
But Lamberth rejected this distinction, finding that the intent of the law was to bar federally funded research where the destruction of embryos was any part of the process. If allowed to stand, the decision would end all federally funded human embryonic stem cell research and with it the promising experiments under way into cures for diabetes, Parkinson's disease and all sorts of other devastating ailments.
The embryos used for this kind of research come from fertility clinics and would be destroyed anyway. Using these embryonic stem cells for cutting edge scientific research that has the potential to cure some of humanity's worst diseases makes so much sense that only the most extreme prolife politicians oppose it. One of the defining moments of the Bush presidency was the avowed prolife president's willingness to allow limited embryonic stem cell research, though under his strict rules the research was too constrained. After Barack Obama became president he swept away the Bush restrictions and the NIH issued new ethical guidelines. Since this unshackling, biomedical research in the field has energetically expanded, making important gains that Lamberth's ruling threatens.
In the long run it might be that adult stem cells can take the place of embryonic stem cells, but medical science has not yet determined that the two are perfectly equivalent. Until that time, the law must allow federally funded experiments that ethically use embryonic stem cells.