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Embryonic Stem Cell Ruling Fallout

An article in today’s Forward explains why Jewish groups are up in arms about a judge’s injunction to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The judge’s ruling interpreted the Dickey-Wicker amendment—a law that prohibits federal funding of research that harms or destroys human embryos—to include all research involving embryonic stem cells, which are obtained through a process that results in the destruction of human embryos.

Under Presidents Obama and Bush, it was only funding of research involving this harvesting process that was completely barred—not research involving just the stem cells themselves. (Bush restricted, but did not completely prohibit funding of stem cell research not related to their harvesting from embryos.)

Shell-shocked scientists and their allies in Congress are now considering how to respond. Researchers consider embryonic stem cells—very early stage cells with the ability to develop into any form of human cell in the body—to hold revolutionary potential for treating disease.

Looking ahead, here’s how it can shake out: The Department of Justice on Tuesday filed an emergency motion asking Judge Royce C. Lamberth to stay his decision. Lamberth is giving the plaintiff until Friday to file a response brief.

But legal recourse may fail. That’s why stakeholders are mobilizing beyond the courts and looking to new legislation.

Already last year, Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, reintroduced the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, a bill that passed Congress in 2007, only to be vetoed by Bush. The bill would effectively reinstitute the Obama policy of allowing funding for embryonic stem cell research that was not directly involved in harvesting the cells. To preempt a court challenge, DeGette now wants to add language to her bill to specify that such research does not fall under the purview of the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

“The longer we wait, the more in jeopardy existing experiments are,” DeGette told the Forward. DeGette said she thinks she has garnered enough support to move the bill. Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, is sponsoring a comparable bill in the Senate and has scheduled a Sept. 16 hearing on the legislation.

Richard Doerflinger, the pro-life expert at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says such a law would be invalid. “Saying now what the Dickey amendment means, that doesn’t do any good,” he said. Doerflinger added that the Catholic Church will lobby against the bill.

How likely is it for Congress to mobilize during a contentious election season when economic recovery dominates the agenda?

DeGette is optimistic, calling her bill “a positive issue for supporters of the research, because it’s well-supported by the public.”

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington lobbyist, is less sanguine. “Congress is so dysfunctional right now,” he said. “I’d be surprised if legislation like this could move before next year.”

Still, the ruling’s fallout is becoming an election issue in some races. DeGette said her aides have been working with the bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Mike Castle of Delaware, to reintroduce the bill. But Castle’s primary opponent, Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell, remains staunchly against embryonic stem cell research.

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