Embryo Research During President Barack Obama's Administration (2009- )

Recent Developments in the Courts

In 2009, just two months into his term, President Barack Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of newly created lines, as long as the embryos used were not created specifically for the purpose of conducting research on them and ethical guidelines developed by the NIH were followed (Obama 2009). Human embryonic stem cell lines produced with non-federal funding, if following strict ethical NIH guidelines, were added to a list of “approved” stem cell lines that could be eligible for federal funding.

President Obama on Stem Cell Research

President Obama signed an order reversing the Bush administration's strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research.
(See the New York Times Topics - Stem Cells)

In 2009, a few weeks after the new NIH guidelines went into effect, a group of plaintiffs that included two adult stem cell researchers (James Sherley and Theresa Deisher), an embryo adoption agency, and actual embryos, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the NIH, insisting that federal funding of human ESC research is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment (contradicting Harriet Rabb’s interpretation of a decade earlier). The case was initially dismissed by Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, but after an appeal, his ruling was reversed and the case was sent back to him for reconsideration regarding the competitive standing of Sherley and Deisher. (Vogel and Couzin-Frankel 2011).

After reviewing the case in August of 2010, Chief Judge Lamberth instituted a temporary injunction blocking government funding of hESC research, arguing that Rabb’s logic was faulty. This returned the policy to its “status quo” while the case was to be decided in full.

With the Lamberth ruling, the NIH scrambled to put on hold new grants and renewals while struggling to fund all existing human embryonic stem cell research it supported, waiting for the Justice Department to appeal the ruling.

In September of 2010, after having been denied by the court a motion to stay the preliminary injunction, the Department of Justice filed an emergency motion with the Court of Appeals again to stay the injunction (United-States-Court-of-Appeals-for-the-DC-Circuit 2010). The Washington DC Appellate Court then blocked the temporary injunction of Judge Lamberth which has allowed funding of hESC research to continue in the interim, following the guidelines developed by the NIH.
Chief Judge of the US District Court Royce LamberthChief Judge of the US District Court Royce Lamberth

In what may be the final word, at least as of 2011, Judge Lamberth, on July 27th, issued a ruling that the US government can continue funding embryonic stem cell research. This decision threw out the 2009 lawsuit by researchers Sherley and Deisher that had challenged President Obama’s expansion of funding. The Judge’s latest decision came after the D.C. Circuit of Appeals removed his temporary injunction of such grants.

Lamberth stated in his opinion that the Appeals Court decision “constrains this court” which compelled him to dismiss the researchers’ challenge. Importantly, the Judge ruled that allowing federal funding for research using stem cells created using private funds is not a violation of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment because such research is not “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed” (Bohan, 2011).

Click here to download the Lamberth Ruling (via nature.com).

Scientists involved in embryonic stem cell research applauded Lamberth’s ruling. “We clearly think it’s the right decision,” said Dr. Jonathan Thomas of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “It will now lift the cloud that’s been hanging over researchers around the country” (Bohan, 2011)

The Lamberth ruling is a big relief for many scientists who have been anxious about their NIH funding. For the 2011 fiscal year, the NIH estimated that $358 million of its budget would go toward human non-embryonic stem cell research and $126 million would go toward human embryonic stem cell research (http://www.aaas.org/spp/cstc/briefs/stemcells).

But Dr. David Prentice, a senior fellow for Life Sciences at the conservative Family Research Council, called the Lamberth July 2011 ruling “unfortunate,” saying that it allowed “the flow of taxpayer funds to continue for this unethical, scientifically unworthy embryonic stem cell research.” He added that it was also a “sad day for patients, because it is not embryonic stem cells, but only adult stem cells that are currently treating patients and offering real hope for the future.” (Bohan, 2011)

Informal Online Poll Results (Phillips, 2010)

Source: biotech.about.com Online Poll

Expand Your Knowledge in Law and Bioethics

The Dickey–Wicker Amendment bans federal funding for research using embryos and parthenotes. Should parthenote research be included in this ban?

Read "An Obscure Rider Obstructing Science: The Conflation of Parthenotes with Embryos in the Dickey–Wicker Amendment" by Sarah Rodriguez, Lisa Campo-Engelsteina Candace Tingen & Teresa Woodruff (2011)here.

Read also the open peer commentaries for opposing views.

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