Appeals Court supports federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research
An appeals court ruled recently that the government can allot federal funds for grants to studies that will engage in the use of human embryonic stem cells.
The two-to-one ruling was made by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It grants permission to the government to make use of human embryonic stem cells to try to find new ways to treat a number of medical conditions, Reuters reported.
The ruling also overthrows a lower court decision made by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth which said the U.S. National Institutes of Health guidelines regarding such studies were violated because these studies involve the destruction of embryos, and puts other studies dealing only with adult stem cells at a disadvantage for funds, Reuters said.
Despite Lamberth’s ruling last August, federal funding of such research continued pending appeal. The White House said that if the studies were halted, millions of dollars could be lost, according to Reuters.
The appeals court decision said the U.S. law is “ambiguous” and “[does] not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC [embryonic stem cell] will be used,” according to Reuters.
Francis Collins, NIH director said in a statement, “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,” Reuters reported.
Research that uses human embryonic stem cells has been a sensitive subject for a long time, with supporters highlighting the potential medical benefits that might be yielded, and opponents saying the procedure is another version of abortion and may involve cloning of other human embryonic stem cells, The Christian Science Monitor said.
The stem cells used in such research comes from human embryos that are days old, at which stage they have the ability to produce any type of body cell. Scientists are hoping that with these embryos cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injuries can be addressed, Reuters reported.
Advocates say the embryos that will be used for the research are the excess that are harvested through in vitro fertilization and which would have been destroyed anyway, The Christian Science Monitor says.
Opponents take issue with the potential destruction of human embryos in the course of developing new cells for the purpose of research. Researchers say embryonic stem cells can be harvested from the placental cord blood as well, The Christian Science Monitor said.
There are no laws that ban destruction of embryos in the case of privately-funded research. However, private funding is not plentiful, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
The issue of human embryonic stem cell research has challenged U.S. leaders from the time of President Bill Clinton, along with Congress, especially regarding ethical and legal issues, The Christian Science Monitor said.
President Barack Obama expanded federal funding in 2009 shortly after he took office specifying that only embryos from fertility clinics, which would have been thrown away, could be used for such research, Reuters said.
The majority ruling was penned by Judge Douglas Ginsburg with Judge Thomas Griffith. The ruling stated, “[The] fact is the statute is not worded precisely enough to resolve the present definitional contest conclusively for one side or another,” The Christian Science Monitor reported.
As a result, the ruling determined it is “entirely reasonable” for the NIH to interpret the law as “permitting funding for research using cell lines derived without federal funding, even as it bars funding for the derivation of additional lines,” Reuters reported.
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson said the court majority was performing “linguistic jujitsu” and was parsing the 1996 law, in this way rendering it unclear, The Christian Science Monitor said.
Henderson said the intent of the statute was to disallow all research that could either result upon, or is dependent on destroying a human embryo. She wrote, “The majority opinion has taken a straightforward case of statutory construction and produced a result that would make Rube Goldberg tip his hat,” The Christian Science Monitor reported.
The statute, called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, forbids NIH to fund: “(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero,” The Christian Science Monitor reported.
Researchers Dr. James Sherley (biological engineer, Boston Biomedical Research Institute), and Theresa Deisher (AVM Biotechnology, Washington), who filed the case, may appeal the decision and seek a full appeals court hearing, Reuters reported.
Fr. Thomas Berg, a Catholic bioethicist and director of Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, said funding embryonic stem cell research is “complicity in the destruction of individual, embryonic human persons,” according to Catholic News Agency.
Berg said, “You were once an embryo. That’s a simple matter of scientific and biological facts. The human embryo is already a human being. It is already a human person at an early stage of development. The arbitrary isolation of that embryonic stage has no logical footing to stand on,” Catholic News Agency reported.