The Sherley v. Sebelius lawsuit challenging U.S. funding for human embryonic stem-cell studies was dismissed by a federal judge after an appeals court found the government-backed research is probably lawful.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, chief of the federal court in Washington, last year said the lawsuit was likely to succeed and ordered a stop to the research while the case was pending. But, the injunction was yanked by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who thought the case was likely to fail.

The original suit was brought by two doctors who sought to block the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the National Institutes of Health from spending federal funds on research involving human embryonic stem-cells.  The plaintiffs in this case, Dr. Sherley and Dr. Deisher, are scientists who conduct research using only adult stem cells. They assert that the NIH violated the Dickey-Wicker Amendment by funding ESC research projects.

Lamberth last year temporarily barred the government from funding the research, finding it probably violated the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The 1996 law bars government spending on research that damages or destroys a human embryo. Now, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overruled, by 2-1, the district court judge’s preliminary injunction on federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is an appropriations rider that bars the NIH from funding:

  1. The creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
  2. research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 C.F.R. 46.204(b) and section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 289g(b)).

The court’s analysis turned on the ambiguity of the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, specifically, a lack of definition for the word “research.” The court determined that the present tense of the Amendment, with no reference to embryos that “were destroyed,” implied that the Amendment did not ban ESC research on stem cell lines in existence at the time of the Amendments enactment.

Judge Ginsburg also pointed out that Congress has continued to leave the Dickey-Wicker Amendment unchanged every year since 1996 even though Congress has had “full knowledge” that the Department of Health and Human Services has been funding ESC research since 2001.

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