American Society of Hematology

Appeals Court Overturns Injunction Barring Federal Funding of Stem Cell Research

Published on: April 29, 2011

(WASHINGTON, April 29, 2011) – An appeals court has ruled that the Obama Administration and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can continue using federal tax dollars to fund human embryonic stem cell research, overturning an August 2010 injunction issued by a federal judge that sought to ban such funding.

On August 23, 2010, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth issued a preliminary injunction that prohibited NIH from funding embryonic stem cell research, saying such research violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos.  In his decision, Judge Lamberth cited legislation passed by Congress in 1996, called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for "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."  Previously, the Department of Health and Human Services had concluded that the NIH's support of embryonic stem cell research did not violate the amendment if the funds were used only for research involving the cells – not to procure them.  Judge Lamberth’s ruling, however, rejected that distinction, citing the “unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding . . . all research in which an embryo is destroyed, not just the piece of research in which the embryo is destroyed.”

In September 2010, a court temporarily lifted the injunction issued by Judge Lamberth, allowing federally funded embryonic stem cell research to continue pending the outcome of the federal government’s appeal in the case.

In today’s decision, the appeals court overturned Judge Lamberth’s ruling, saying:  "Two scientists brought this suit to enjoin the National Institutes of Health from funding research using human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) pursuant to the NIH’s 2009 Guidelines. The district court granted their motion for a preliminary injunction, concluding they were likely to succeed in showing the Guidelines violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, an appropriations rider that bars federal funding for research in which a human embryo is destroyed. We conclude the plaintiffs are unlikely to prevail because Dickey-Wicker is ambiguous and the NIH seems reasonably to have concluded that, although Dickey-Wicker bars funding for the destructive act of deriving an ESC from an embryo, it does not prohibit funding a research project in which an ESC will be used.  We therefore vacate the preliminary injunction."

The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), the nation's most vocal proponent of the use of regenerative medicine to cure disease, of which ASH is a member, released the following statement in support of this decision:

“We are thrilled that the U.S. Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of a district court in the case of Sherley v. Sebelius.  This is a victory for patients all across America, and sends a message that frivolous attacks on important biomedical research will not be tolerated.  This decision is an affirmation of what we already knew: that federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research is not a violation of Dickey-Wicker, and that it is, indeed, important and reflects the public's will.  This is also great news for the scientific community, so that they may continue to apply for grants and know their research will be able to move forward.

We are grateful funding for embryonic stem cell research was not severely disrupted while we went through this process.  Now, the science can continue to move forward and allow researchers to use the best tools to find better treatments and cures.”

ASH has been active in supporting stem cell research. The Society was one of the first physician organizations to support embryonic stem cell research, and ASH’s policy in support of all avenues of stem cell research is available online. The Society strongly supports federal funding for all avenues of stem cell research under NIH federal research guidelines and with appropriate public oversight.

For additional information, please see this article from The New York Times.

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