Ruling allows Federally Funded Stem Cell Research to Continue

In 2010, a U.S. federal court sided with Boston bioengineer James Sherley and banned federal funding for stem cell research in the United States. However, the government is now appealing the case, and the Court of Appeals has agreed to allow currently funded research to continue until the final ruling is delivered.

Stem cell research is currently one of the most controversial issues in the politics of healthcare and medical research in America. Embryonic stem cells are cells harvested from fertilized human embryos, which are particularly attractive to researchers because they have the ability to adapt into any other type of cell found within the body, and may therefore become central to a wide range of next-generation medical therapies involving a wide range of diseases and injuries. Embryonic stem cells are more versatile than stem cells harvested from adults. Supporters of stem cell research argue that the embryos used would not have grown into full human beings, and that the benefits of research into new treatments justifies the research itself. Critics argue that the use of human embryos for research purposes is ethically equivalent to performing destructive medical tests on any other human being – which is to say, it is unethical and should not be permitted given current guidelines preventing unethical medical research.

One of the last fronts in this controversy was a federal court case, Sherley v. Sebelius, brought in the name of Boston Biomedical Research Institute engineer James Sherley. Judge Royce Lamberth, in the District of Columbia federal court, agreed with Sherley in August 2010 and issued an order banning federal funding for stem cell research. Sherley had argued, and Lamberth agreed, that human embryonic research involved the destruction of human embryos and therefore violated a 1995 law known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prevented federal funding from being used for either the creation or destruction of human embryos. The Obama administration attempted to circumvent this by permitting new federal funding for stem cell research through an executive order.

The ruling has obviously – and predictably – been an intensely controversial one. Supporters heralded the decision as a victory for morality and the rule of law. Critics argued that it was unnecessarily setting back medical research, and was based on a dubious interpretation of a decade-old legal technicality.

The administration promptly appealed, of course, so that the case will be re-heard at the Court of Appeals level. (Regardless of the outcome there, it is likely that whoever loses will then appeal to the Supreme Court, at which point it will be re-heard yet again.) In September 2010, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued an order temporarily lifting Lamberth’s verdict and allowing federally funded research to continue until such time as they can consider the case themselves.

It is difficult to tell whether this decision was because the Appeals Court intends to overturn Lamberth’s verdict, or because it believes that the legal issues are unsettled enough that it is willing to allow research to continue until it has time to make a proper consideration of the issues itself. Because the current controversy appears to be legal but not Constitutional, a sufficiently determined Congress could eventually decide the matter either one way or the other through the passage of new laws.

In the meantime, barring intervention from Congress, the current Appeals Court order lasts until it can deliver its own verdict on that case. If the verdict agrees with Lamberth, then the current order will be vacated and federal funding of stem cell research will cease permanently. If the verdict overturns Lamberth’s, then the current order will become permanent and federal funding will continue indefinitely.