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Judge Blocks Federal Funding for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

August 24, 2010

A federal judge has blocked President Obama’s executive order restoring funding for embryonic stem cell research. On Monday, US District Judge Royce Lamberth said the funding violates a 1996 law prohibiting federal money for any research that destroys or threatens human embryos. Obama’s order had overturned a move by his predecessor George W. Bush to further restrict stem cell funding. [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our final story, a federal judge blocking President Obama’s executive order restoring funding for embryonic stem cell research. On Monday, US District Judge Royce Lamberth said the funding violates a 1996 law prohibiting federal money for any research that destroys or threatens human embryos. Obama’s order had overturned a move by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to further restrict stem cell funding. Religious conservatives have generally opposed embryonic stem cell research, because it involves destruction of embryos, which they view as human life. Scientists say the ruling could immediately shut down research at dozens of federally funded labs.

We’re joined now by Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s joining us on the line from Las Vegas.

Professor Caplan, thanks so much for being with us. We only have a few minutes. Talk about the significance of this ruling. It was one of President Obama’s first acts in office, the executive order to allow for more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: It’s hugely significant. And good morning. It is a setback for those with spinal cord injuries, diabetes, other diseases that we don’t have cures for. Embryonic stem cell research is one strategy to hopefully find some cures. No guarantees. It’s still research. But that research is really dependent on federal funding. You could still do it with private money, but there isn’t a lot of private money these days for that kind of thing. So, with this stay ordered by the judge, basically the federal funding comes to a halt, and the few centers that can raise private money will continue, but it’s a real setback for the research.

AMY GOODMAN: You have people across the political spectrum who have been for embryonic stem cell research. Most notably, Nancy Reagan. Of course, her husband, President Reagan, had Alzheimer’s — the significance of the embryonic stem cell research for Alzheimer’s. There was Christopher Reeve, who died. There was — there is Michael J. Fox.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Many, many people across the political spectrum have gotten onboard this. There’s no doubt polls continue to show the American people want this research pursued. The person who brought the suit said, "I’m not going to be able to get my grants if embryonic stem cell research is funded, because I work on what’s called adult stem cells," which are basically the naturally occurring cells in the body that heal wounds and injuries. It’s a crazy theory. I think it makes no sense at all. People are certainly willing to fund both adult and embryonic stem cell research.

But the judge said, "Look, Congress every year has passed the so-called Dickiey Amendment, that explicitly prohibits research on embryos since 1994. It’s an old law, a rider that keeps getting stuck on appropriation bills. There it is. And I’m going to tell you that it bans embryonic stem cell research." I have to say, there is a line of thought that says that’s right, and I think both the Bush administration and the Obama administration tried to narrowly interpret that rider to get federal funding going. The judge has kind of called them out on it. I think the only way we’re going to proceed is to get rid of the Dickey Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by the person who brought the case, the former MIT scientist, and others who oppose embryonic stem cell research.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Basically, the person who brought the case is a scientist up at Harvard who said, "I am not sure if embryonic stem cell research is given federal funding, that anybody will give funding to my adult stem cell research." He had an alternative way to find stem cells. Some do naturally occur in the body, and he wanted to work with those, as opposed to generating them from an embryo. Embryo cells are fully potent, can turn into all forms of cells. But there are some adult cells, like when you bite your tongue and it grows back, or your intestinal tract. He wanted to use those types of cells to try and find cures for disease. So his contention, pretty simply, was, if you make the money available for embryonic, no one is going to like adult stem cell research, I won’t get money, my career will be damaged. And again, I think it’s a ridiculous argument. But that was the argument.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s going to happen now, Professor Caplan?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: I think we’re going to see a move to finally take the Dickey Amendment, which has been stuck on as a kind of polite rider to pro-life people on appropriation bills for HHS, pulled. But that’s going to take time. And what’s going to happen immediately is, no federal funds for research probably for about nine months.

AMY GOODMAN: The person you’re talking about is former MIT researcher Dr. James Sherley.


AMY GOODMAN: And their argument that they can use adult stem cell; you don’t have to use the embryonic stem cells?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: Precisely. And, you know, it may turn out, ultimately, that adult stem cells, the ones that occur in the human body that heal us when we suffer cuts or other injuries, they may turn out to do a lot. But everybody knows that we’re in early days of stem cell research. And whether embryonically — cells generated from embryos, which we know can turn into all types of cells, are going to turn out to be more useful than adult stem cells, we don’t know. I don’t want to make a prediction or a call. It’s too early. But if I was sick or if I was in a wheelchair, if I had diabetes, I’d want federal funding of all forms, everything, of stem cell research.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Caplan, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Center for Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania.

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