A Stem Cell Logjam

Posted Sept. 13, 2010, at 6:54 p.m.

A tangled lawsuit has thrown in doubt much of the stem cell research that for two decades has been seeking possible cures for deadly ailments including Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, as well as diabetes and cancer. Rather than allowing uncertainty to stall such lifesaving research, Congress should step in to clarify the rules.

A U.S. appeals court has temporarily lifted U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth’s Aug. 23 temporary injunction banning human embryonic stem cell research. Putting the injunction on hold permits the National Institutes of Health for the time being to resume work that had been suspended. But doubt and uncertainty will cloud the promising — and necessary — research while the case moves through the District Court and inevitable appeals.

Scientists Dr. James L. Shirley and Dr. Theresa Deisher are suing the government to stop federal funding for research involving the destruction of human embryos to obtain the stem cells. Those embryos are relatively few of many thousands that otherwise would be discarded and destroyed as surplus by fertility clinics.

Judge Lamberth held that Congress was “unambiguous” in prohibiting since 1996 the federal funding of “research in which human embryos are destroyed.” This despite the fact that Congress has repeatedly authorized a Bush administration compromise that allowed private money to use human embryos to extract the stem cells and federal funding for the later research. Congress has funded the human embryonic stem cell research at a total of more than $500 million in the past nine years. The research has been using leftover embryos provided by unpaid donors in fertility clinics. One of President Barack Obama’s first acts was to lift restrictions that President George W. Bush had imposed and issue new rules covering the research.

The Obama administration is right in calling for emergency court action to reinstate the most recent rules to get this vital research back on track.

If the appeal procedure goes into a further series of delays and heads toward a questionable outcome at the U.S. Supreme Court, another obvious solution is available. Congress could revive the legislation that Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, introduced in the 1990s, but which was twice vetoed by President Bush. It would generally restore the accepted system under the Obama rules. Rep. DeGette has reintroduced her bill, again co-written by Rep. Mike Castle, a Delaware Republican, and says the shock of the Lamberth ruling may give it a boost.

So the questions now are whether the courts can promptly do the right thing and, if not, whether Congress has the guts to deal properly with this inflammatory issue with the November elections approaching. A strong public majority favors the research, and the only embryos to be used would be discarded anyway. An activist few should not be able to obstruct promising scientific research that may improve the lives of the already living.

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