Reopening an old wound

Our view: A judge misinterprets congressional intent and now federal funding for critical stem-cell medical research is put in jeopardy

August 25, 2010

Royce C. Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, is a well-regarded jurist, noted for his independence and intellect, and wholly wrong in his recent decision to temporarily ban federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. His reasoning — that it is in violation of a 1996 federal law banning funding of research that causes the destruction of human embryos — is faulty on the face of it.

After all, the judge's ruling does not just strike down the Obama administration's stem-cell research policies; it would likely have wiped out President George W. Bush's position of allowing funding of research on 21 embryonic stem-cell lines created prior to 2001. Under either guideline, embryos were destroyed. Under President Barack Obama's 2009 executive order, the rules were simply relaxed enough to allow use of embryos that would otherwise be disposed of from in-vitro fertilization procedures.

The Justice Department has already announced its intention to appeal the decision. That's welcome news — but not good enough. Congress needs to take the matter out of the courts entirely, clarify the language and rescue vital stem-cell research projects now put at risk by the ruling.

From a purely political standpoint, Democrats could scarcely find a better cause to rally around right now. A decade's worth of opinion polls has shown the public supports stem-cell research by a 2-1 margin or greater, and it's an issue that has frequently divided Republicans. Most Americans likely assumed this was settled law.

But the far greater consequence of the decision is its potentially devastating impact on stem-cell research supported by the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health. At least 22 experiments valued at about $54 million with federal grants set to expire in September are now in jeopardy.

Stem-cell research is not some trivial pursuit. At places like the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, such genetic study holds great promise to find treatments for medical conditions ranging from diabetes to spinal cord injury. It's notable that the matter was in the courts only because two researchers working in adult stem cells were unhappy with the competition for federal funding.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's continued support of a state-sponsored stem-cell research fund now seems absolutely prescient. The size of the fund ($10.4 million this year) is relatively paltry (and only about one-quarter of it supports embryonic stem-cell research), but it could prove modestly helpful if the ruling stands. Certainly, it signals to the research community that Maryland can be a haven for scientists looking for science-based government decision-making.

We do not support genetic research that operates without reasonable ethical guidelines. But Judge Lamberth's interpretation of the law carries it to a ridiculous extreme to include embryos that were destroyed even before research started. This is particularly galling considering that Congress under both Democratic and Republican leadership has funded embryonic stem-cell research over the last 14 years. Does that not reflect legislative intent as well?

Washington needs to free scientists to pursue avenues of research that could improve the lives of millions of people. No matter what happens with the administration's appeal, the issue cries out for a more permanent fix by Congress.

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