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Appeals court lets ESCR funding continue

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that government funding of embryonic stem cell research may continue while a legal challenge to the Obama administration’s policy on the lethal experimentation goes forward.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a new suspension of a federal judge’s Aug. 23 ruling that had halted funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) under guidelines published last year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). President Obama had issued an executive order earlier in 2009 overturning a more restrictive funding policy and ordering NIH to devise guidelines consistent with his decree.

The ability of stem cells to convert to other cells and tissues has provided great hope for developing cures for various diseases, but extracting stem cells from an embryo results in the destruction of the days-old human being. ESCR has not proven as effective as other forms of stem cell experimentation that do not harm the donor. It has yet to provide any treatments for human beings and has been plagued by tumors in lab animals.

Southern Baptist pro-life leader Richard Land called it “a sad day for America and an excruciating day for American taxpayers.”

Taxpayers “are being compelled to subsidize that which they find abhorrent, namely the killing of unborn babies to harvest their stem cells to try to find cures for older and bigger human beings,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The tragedy is compounded by the fact that more and more scientists are turning from embryonic stem cell research to either research with adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, which require no child sacrifice.”

The White House applauded the decision.

“President Obama made expansion of stem cell research and the pursuit of groundbreaking treatments and cures a top priority when he took office,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “We’re heartened that the court will allow NIH and their grantees to continue moving forward while the appeal is resolved.”

Research with adult stem cells in human trials has produced therapies for 73 afflictions, including cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.

Experiments with induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells have demonstrated promising results and generated a great deal of interest in recent years among scientists. Researchers have been able to reprogram adult skin cells into cells that have virtually the identical properties of embryonic ones, which have the ability to change into any cell or tissue in the body.

The order from the D.C. Circuit panel replaced a temporary one it issued Sept. 9. In its latest action, the panel called for expedited consideration of the appeal of the August order by federal judge Royce Lamberth.

In his injunction halting funding of ESCR, Lamberth found NIH’s 2009 guidelines violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, a law that prohibits federal funds for research in which a human embryo is destroyed. Lamberth has not issued a final ruling, but he said in his injunction the lawsuit had “a strong likelihood” of succeeding.

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment — an annual, spending bill rider that was first approved in 1996 — says federal funds shall not be used for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.”

In his ruling, Lamberth rejected arguments by lawyers for the administration that the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is ambiguous and permits federal funding for research on stem cells after they have been removed from embryos. The amendment bars funding for the “piece of research” in which the embryo is destroyed, they contended.

The law does not permit such an interpretation, Lamberth said.

“Rather, the language of the statute reflects the unambiguous intent of Congress to enact a broad prohibition of funding research in which a human embryo is destroyed,” he wrote. “This prohibition encompasses all ‘research in which’ an embryo is destroyed, not just the ‘piece of research’ in which the embryo is destroyed.”

On Sept. 7, Lamberth rejected the Obama administration’s request that he revoke his stay. The administration then took its case to the appeals court.

Obama’s March 2009 executive order overturned a prohibition instituted by President Bush on federal funding of stem cell research that results in the destruction of embryos. Bush’s 2001 order permitted, however, grants for experiments on stem cell lines, or colonies, already in existence at the time of his action.

NIH’s final guidelines, issued in July 2009, allowed funding for research on stem cells derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization but not implanted. The embryos had to be donated by the parents who underwent the fertility treatments.

Land said he urges “all Americans who value the sanctity of human life to lift up the Court of Appeals judges in prayer and to importune the Lord to intervene on behalf of the unborn.”

Quoting from Prov. 21:1, he said, “As we pray, we should always remember the ‘king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’ and ‘He turneth it whithersoever He will.'”

All three justices on the three-judge panel were nominated by President George W. Bush. They are Janice Rogers Brown, Thomas Beall Griffith, and Brett Kavanaugh. Lamberth was nominated by President Reagan.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.