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D.C. Circuit weighs stem cell research ban

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pleaded with an appeals court Monday to overturn a judge’s order halting federal funding of stem cell research, arguing the ban would irreparably harm scientific progress toward potentially lifesaving medical treatment.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is considering whether to throw out a lower court judge’s ban on President Barack Obama’s rules for federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington temporarily blocked Obama’s rules a month ago because he said it’s likely they violate the law on federal funding of embryo destruction. He’s presiding in a lawsuit challenging those rules, filed by the nonprofit group Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which helps with the adoption of human embryos that are being stored in fertilization clinics.

The appeals court stayed Lamberth’s order and allowed the research to continue while it takes up the case. It gave both sides in the dispute 15 minutes each to present its arguments over the injunction, but in an indication of the high stakes in the case ended up questioning the attorneys for more than an hour.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth Brinkmann told the appellate judges that Lamberth’s injunction would stop funding to 24 research projects at the National Institutes of Health that have already received $64 million in taxpayer investment.

Judge Thomas Griffith questioned whether the work would really be irreparably harmed or just delayed if the government ultimately can win the ongoing case.

“All $64 million is completely ruined?” Griffith asked. “They don’t keep lab notebooks?”

Brinkmann responded there are notes, but “it would be a setback for the field. Biological material would be destroyed.”

Thomas Hungar, lawyer for the adoption group, argued that just because the government can’t do the research on its preferred timetable, it’s not an irreparable harm.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body, and researchers hope one day to harness that power in ways that cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.

Opponents say the research is another form of abortion because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells.

A 1996 law prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars in work that harms an embryo, so batches have been culled using private money. But those batches can reproduce in lab dishes indefinitely, and government policies say using taxpayer dollars to work with the already created batches is permissible.

The Obama administration expanded the number of stem cell lines created with private money that federally funded scientists could research, up from the 21 that President George W. Bush had allowed to 75 so far. To qualify, parents who donate the original embryo must be told of other options, such as donating to another infertile woman.

Congress twice passed legislation specifically calling for tax-funded stem cell research, which Bush vetoed. Some Democrats are considering whether to try the legislation again in light of Lamberth’s ruling.