Justice Department Appeals Stem Cell Research Ruling

Issue could mobilize conservative voters in midterm elections.

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Over their summer recess, lawmakers have kept busy arguing about government spending, tax cuts, and jobs, all hot-button issues in this year's midterm elections. But when a U.S. District Court judge unexpectedly ruled last week against federal funds being used for embryonic stem cell research, he pushed a contentious social policy issue onto the election-year battleground.

Under the 1996 law known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, no federal funds can be used for scientific research that destroys human embryos, the source for embryonic stem cells. The Clinton administration in 1999 argued that taxpayer money could finance experiments on stem cells already cultivated by scientists through private funding. The Bush administration adopted that standard in 2001, but prohibited federal funds for work involving any additional stem cell lines. In 2009, President Obama lifted those restrictions and expanded federal funding for research using dozens more stem cells lines created with private funding. On Monday, Judge Royce Lamberth, in Washington, D.C., granted opponents a temporary injunction blocking federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, ruling that there is no meaningful distinction between the act of destroying embryos to obtain stem cells and the subsequent use of those stem cells. The Justice Department filed an appeal Tuesday.

Lamberth's decision shocked researchers, who warned that it will set back years of work against diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. There is some uncertainty about whether the ruling halts current projects or just future funding, but it clearly raises the stakes for Congress. In March, a year after Obama's executive order, Colorado Democrat Rep. Diana DeGette reintroduced the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, a measure that allowed federal funding for research using new stem cells obtained from discarded human embryos and which President George W. Bush had vetoed in 2006 and 2008. Lamberth's ruling "underscores why we must pass common-sense, embryonic stem cell research legislation," she said in a statement. In the Senate, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin set an Appropriations Committee hearing on the issue for September 16.

Meanwhile, the ruling "has the potential to mobilize the conservative base in the midterm election," says Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University, who has been studying the stem cell debate since 2001. Nisbet says conservatives will likely argue that Obama's policy is ethically wrong and also illegal. Some conservatives have already embraced the issue. "It is morally wrong to create human life in order to destroy it for research, and it is wrong that the tax dollars of millions of pro-life Americans have been used to fund this destructive research," Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence said, following the ruling.

But the issue won't necessarily break cleanly along party lines. In some congressional districts, antiabortion swing voters make up 3 to 5 percent of the electorate, says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, who praised the ruling. "That's why Republicans are really targeting the pro-life Democrats" in those districts, says Day.

While the ruling comes at a tough time for this fall's candidates, there is a silver lining" of sorts, says Nisbet. "We've never had a serious, substantive discussion about the ethical and legal framework by which to decide stem cell research," he says. "This could enable an opportunity for a more context-based discussion of ethics."