Two scientists and a group of embryo advocates filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia federal court on August 19 against Health and Human Services Dept. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and NIH Director Francis Collins.
The suit was filed by Dr. James L. Sherley, a senior scientist working at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, and Dr. Theresa Deisher, research and development director of AVM Biotechnology.
The plaintiffs were joined in the suit by a group of embryo advocates, some of whom have adopted left over frozen IVF embryos.
The suit argues that the NIH guidelines implementing Pres. Obama’s March executive order rescinding Bush administration restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research violate the so-called Dickey-Wicker amendment to a 1996 federal budget authorization law.
That amendment prohibits federal funds from being spent for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes [and] 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 existing federal law.
According to the plaintiffs, the amendment, on the books for more than 13 years, has been renewed every year by Congress.
Despite the amendment, however, Pres. George Bush, a staunch pro-lifer, issued an executive order in August 2001 that allowed the use of federal funds for research using stem cell lines derived from human embryos prior to that date.
Under that executive order, thousands of dollars were disbursed for human embryonic stem cell research under the Bush administration.
The lawsuit could end up having the opposite effect from that intended by the plaintiffs.
According to at least one observer in Washington, the suit “may spur efforts in Congress to modify or rescind entirely [the] Dickey-Wicker [amendment], which might put the Sherley-Deisher complaint in a curious legal gray area.”
House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said earlier this year that she expected Congress to pass legislation that would enhance support for stem cell research and ensure that future presidents couldn’t unilaterally change the policy without congressional approval.
“It is one of our top priorities,” Pelosi said.
Legislation (the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act) removing the Dickey-Wicker ban was passed twice by the House and Senate since 2006, and vetoed both times by Pres. Bush.
“A repeal of the ban is critical so that we may take advantage of the opportunity to save lives, find cures and give hope to those suffering,” Pelosi said. “It is an opportunity that we cannot miss.”