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US judge rules decisively for federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research

In a victory for supporters of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, a US district judge ruled today that government funding of the research is legal, despite an existing law that prohibits US funding of research in which an embryo is destroyed.


The 38-page summary judgment by Royce Lamberth (right), the chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, may not be the final word in the case of Sherley et al. v. Sebelius, the lawsuit that ground US stem cell research to a halt for 17 days last August and September. But it puts the plaintiffs, adult stem cell researchers James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, on a challenging course should they choose to appeal today’s decision to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit or, ultimately, the Supreme Court.

Their lawyers said in this statement today that they “are weighing all of their options for appeal.”

Lamberth is the same judge who issued a preliminary injunction 11 months ago that temporarily suspended US funding for the research on the grounds that it was “unambiguously” prohibited by existing law. He noted in today’s opinion that an intervening decision in April from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit “constrains this Court” and obliges him to find that the law, the Dickey-Wicker amendment, is ambiguous enough to allow for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for hESC research.

The amendment prohibits government funding for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The appeals court said in April that, given the ambiguity of the word “research” in that text, the NIH was “reasonable” in concluding that it could fund research using cell lines derived from embryos (which are destroyed in the process) as long as it does not fund the derivation itself.

Today, Lamberth wrote: “While it may be true that by following the Court of Appeals’ conclusion as to the ambiguity of “research,” this Court has become a grudging partner in a bout of “linguistic jujitsu”, such is life for a [lower] court.”

He added that, in briefs filed with him and with the appeals court since last August, the plaintiffs failed to present any convincing new arguments. “The only thing that has changed since this Court first considered the question of whether “research” in the statute is ambiguous is that the [appeals court] has made it abundantly clear that the term is ambiguous as a matter of law.”

Lamberth also pointedly dispensed with another argument made by the plaintiffs, that the NIH violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in the spring and summer of 2009, as it drafted guidelines to implement President Barack Obama’s March 2009 executive order loosening constraints on government funding for the research. In those guidelines, it was up to NIH to specify exactly how that would be achieved, and to collect public comments on the guidelines. The plaintiffs had alleged that, by ignoring tens of thousands of public comments opposing any government funding of the research, NIH violated the APA.

Today, Lamberth wrote that: “the NIH wasn’t obligated to respond to [public] comments on the topic of whether to fund human embryonic stem cell research…..The NIH rightly disregarded comments that provided no assistance regarding the task at hand: to create guidelines for funding embryonic stem cell research that would ensure that funded projects are ethically responsible and scientifically worthy.”

Supporters of the research were both jubilant and cautious. “Given the quality of the briefs, this is certainly what we expected and hoped for, and it’s the right ruling,” said Amy Comstock Rick, a lawyer who is chief executive officer of the Parkinson’s Action Network in Washington, DC.

“This is a great victory for patients and the researchers who are trying to help them,” added Tony Mazzaschi, the senior director of scientific affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, DC. “[But] obviously, it’s likely that the plaintiffs will appeal this decision.”

George Daley, a stem cell scientist at Children’s Hospital, Boston, said: “While I am relieved that this case was decided in favor of the NIH policy on stem cell research, I remain concerned that the opponents will press this issue further, perhaps to the Supreme Court.”

Francis Collins, the NIH director, said in a statement: "“We are pleased with today’s ruling. Responsible stem cell research has the potential to develop new treatments and ultimately save lives. This ruling will help ensure this groundbreaking research can continue to move forward.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Aden of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance Defense Fund, portrayed Lamberth as having his “hands tied” by the court of appeals’ April decision.

“Americans should not be forced to pay for experiments that destroy human life, have produced no real-world treatments, and violate federal law,” Aden said in a statement. “The law is clear, and we intend to review all of our options for appeal of this decision.”

For all of Nature’s coverage of the stem cell injunction, see our special collection.


  1. Report this comment

    John Kim said:

    What’s ambiguous about the word “research”?

    Judge Royce, you are a flip-flopper.

    How can you justify funding human embryonic stem cell research from derived stem cell lines so long the destruction of human embryos are not funded? You need destruction of human stem cell embryos in order to derive cell lines. You cannot wash your hands from this!

    And should not the NIH which is funded with public money accountable to the people of this country for the use of tax dollar money?

    This is going to the Supreme Court for overturn!

  2. Report this comment

    Nicole said:


    I do no research, no law. I live every day as best as I can and watch carefully how people live around me. I felt intrigued by your post. Since you did not give your definition of “ambiguous” and “research”, I went to the dictionary to find out how human language defines those two. You’ll find them at the bottom of the post. I am convinced that people do research and governments encourage research because we need to fully understand how we live and we die in order to live fully and die better.

    When scientists engage in the systematic understanding of life (see definitions below), I assume that they start in the “ ambiguous” state, that is to say, open to “more than one interpretation” of what, how and why things happen. It is only in the process of understanding (by experimenting and validating) that ambiguity shapes into certitude on why things are or are not as they appeared. The question arises as to a) what is the rationale for imposing limits to our ability to comprehend life, b) what are the indispensable “check-points” to ensure that research is being pursued with the ultimate goal of living fully and dying better and c) where are the powers deciding how the American resources are used and for what?

    I believe that the Court rightly admitted that “the definition of research in the law is ambiguous”, and the statement in my view is consistent with a thoughtful consideration of all arguments presented and deep understanding and respect for what is research and what are the consequences. In my view, Chief Judge Royce Lambert is not flip-flopping but listening, thinking and acting responsibly in its mission of exercising justice. While I share your sorrow for those “human lives-to-be” of discarded human embryos, I can’t help but feel a profound sadness for the lack of concern on so many human losses in premeditated wars, so many families in distress with members suffering debilitating diseases or lack of economic means to provide for sound health care or urgent needs of their elderly… I could go on with my list of sorrows but will stop here.

    Take care,


    – Research

    the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

    – Ambiguous

    (of language) open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning

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