Photo of an Embryo
The stem cell research ban is back to being a hot topic. CC by Hljod.Huskona/Flickr

A ban on stem cell research is back in the limelight, just in time for the midterm elections. A U.S. district judge once again blocked federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on Aug. 23. President Obama signed an executive order releasing federal funds for stem cell research shortly after his inauguration. A pair of science researchers backed by religious groups sued to overturn that order. Obama fulfilled a campaign promise by ending prohibitions initiated in 2001 by his predecessor. By siding with the plaintiffs, the judge derailed planned research on cures for diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Scientific organizations registered their disgust. The administration is planning an appeal. The political utility of the stem cell issue is being evaluated by both parties.

Stem cell research set back 10 years

Scientists engaged in stem cell research were blindsided when a judge renewed the Bush ban. Religious groups including Nightlight Christian Adoptions filed the lawsuit. Scientists involved in the complaint claimed discrimination. They convinced the judge that researchers using adult stem cells facing competition for federal aid from embryonic stem cell programs is unfair. In an article published by U.S. News and World Report, a scientist said stem cell research suffered a 10-year setback with the ruling. Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, told U.S. News that the court decision “allows a vocal minority to hold science hostage to a narrow political agenda.”

Stem cells reemerge as a political issue

The Justice Department said it will appeal the judge’s decision. The Wall Street Journal reports that supporters of embryonic stem cell research in Congress are exploring ways to maintain federal funding. The potential payoff is being weighed by political strategists. A Republican strategist told the Journal that stem cell research may help motivate loyal anti-abortion voters, but jobs will get more attention. Given that most Americans think embryonic stem cell research is a good idea, Democrats could come out on the winning side of the debate. As he promotes the midterms as either a step forward or a step back, President Obama could hold the advantage.

Stem cell research law

While the issue is in appeal, the administration will work to convince the district court to suspend its ruling, according to the Justice Department. Marco Bolo, commenting on the article in U.S. News, pointed out a 1996 law restricting the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Obama has no authority to erase a law on the books, he contends, and the judge is bound to enforce the law. Resuming progress with embryonic stem cell research is as simple, and as complicated, as rewriting the law.


U.S. News & World Report:

Wall Street Journal:

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