Oral arguments made in federal stem cell case

Yesterday a three judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court heard oral arguments in the legal case that has threatened federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research since August.

Nature has an excellent piece with excerpts from the arguments. The central issue is whether funding for research using human embryonic stem cells is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which prohibits federal funding the destruction of embryos. The NIH had read that amendment to mean that they can’t fund the creation of new stem cell lines, which does destroy the embryo, but they can fund research using the lines created with private funding. The plaintiffs have argued that the very use of those cells encourages the destruction of embryos and thus violates the law.

This seems like a good time to point out that the leftover IVF embryos used to created human embryonic stem cell lines were donated by people who would otherwise have discarded the embryos without donation. Adoption is an alternative, but not one that is commonly chosen.

But I digress. Here’s a particularly interesting excerpt from the Nature story (Thomas Hungar argued for the plaintiffs):

Hungar: Federal funding of this research to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars absolutely creates more than a minimal risk that an embryo is going to be destroyed.

Judge Ginsburg: [The Dickey-Wicker amendment] says in which [an embryo is destroyed], not for which [an embryo is destroyed.]

Hungar: The fact that this is federally funded research creates an incentive [for that destruction.]

Ginsburg: So you’re back to the incentive argument again….This is all one argument: the research is a continuum….It started with the destruction [and derivation of the cell line and goes forward open-endedly after that]….and [your] reason for reading it that way is the incentive…..There’s research into making lab equipment and there’s research using [that] equipment. [There’s no reason to say they’re the same.]….This is pretty straightforward [He reads from the statute:] `research in which human embryos are destroyed, not were destroyed.’

It isn’t clear how long the court will take to rule in this case.

This trial only relates to federal funding. CIRM funds the creation of new cell lines and research using those lines. You can see a list of all CIRM awards that have the goal of creating new human embryonic stem cell lines on our searchable grants page.

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