Federal Appeals Court: Gov't Can Fund Stem Cell Research for Now

Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is back on following the ruling of a federal appeals court Thursday.

Two days after a district court judge refused to stay an order blocking the funding of the controversial research, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit granted the stay requested by the Obama administration.

As a result, the National Institutes of Health – for an unpredictable amount of time – can use federal dollars to support the research, which necessitates the destruction of embryos.

Conservatives, unsurprisingly, were not pleased by the ruling.

"This ruling amounts to saying that the government can fund an activity that is legally questionable while the legality is being determined by the courts," commented Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, in a statement. "If the Appeals court wants to consider the government's appeal, that is understandable, but it is irresponsible to fund something of questionable legality. This amounts to claiming that the activity is in fact legal."

Late last month, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for D.C. issued a preliminary injunction that barred the NIH from funding human embryonic stem cell research. In his ruling, Lamberth said the funding violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment – a 1996 law that prohibits funding for research that involves destruction or damage to a human embryo.

The Obama administration, however, argued that the funding to date has not been used to destroy embryos but only for research. Officials also emphasized the untapped potential of finding a cure for a wide range of diseases.

"We are pleased with the Court's interim ruling, which will allow promising stem cell research to continue while we present further arguments to the Court in the weeks to come," stated the NIH on Friday.

"Human embryonic stem cell research holds the potential for generating profound new insights into disease, cell-based therapeutics, and novel methods of screening for new drugs," the nation's premiere medical research agency added.

In response to the latest ruling, the NIH said it has resumed research and is considering applications for grants that were suspended by the preliminary injunction.

For over a year now, the NIH has been acting on an executive order issued by President Obama, who last March rescinded former President George W. Bush's order to restrict federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Funding and supporting human embryonic research has been one of Obama's top priorities.

While the latest ruling was hailed as a victory by some, the judges of the appeals court clarified in their order that the stay "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits."

Still, the decision was criticized by conservative groups including the Alliance Defense Fund, co-counsel in the lawsuit against the federal funding of the research.

ADF Senior Legal Counsel Steven H. Aden argued that Americans "should not be forced to pay for even one more day of experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments, and violate an existing federal law."

Like many opponents of embryonic stem cell research, Aden points to ethical and successful alternatives to the controversial research, such as adult stem cell research or induced pluripotent stem cell research.

To date, adult stem cell research has helped treat more than 80 diseases while embryonic stem cell has treated none.

"In economic times like we are in now, it doesn't make sense for the federal government to use precious taxpayer dollars for this illegal and unethical purpose," said Aden.

Despite arguments, supporters of the controversial research emphasize that embryonic stem cells can differentiate into almost any tissue and therefore have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases.

NIH Chief Dr. Francis Collins, an outspoken evangelical Christian, has also assured concerned Americans that research on the embryos is ethical and does not violate principles on human dignity and sanctity of life.

"Let me be clear, these are embryos that would have been otherwise discarded as part of in-vitro fertilization clinic activities," Collins noted late last year in an appearance on CNN.

Collins was tapped to direct the NIH just months after Obama's March 2009 executive order on stem cell research. He is also a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

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