Update on ES cell court case: here comes more trouble from extremists

stem cellsFederal funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is hanging by a tenuous thread at the moment.

While currently legal, such funding is at the mercy of a legal case making its way through the courts. The latest stop for this case is a review by a 3-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court. The panel, randomly selected, is composed entirely of extremely right wing justices that are more inclined to rule based on ideology than law.

Most observers, myself included, are convinced that this panel will rule against federal funding of hESC research sometime this fall, throwing the field once again into chaos. In fact, this possible ruling is part of what I called the possible “Perfect Storm…that may kill stem cell research” this fall.

A recent development in the case was a filing of amici curiae for the plaintiffs (the scientists suing to stop federal funding of hESC research). The composition of the new friends of the plaintiffs is striking and was almost certainly composed by design to try to impress the court with its medical/scientific/ethical gravitas. I’m not impressed.

You can read the full amicus brief here (hat tip to my friend out there who sent it to me). Warning it’s a PDF, but not a huge one.

These new supporters of the plaintiffs almost entirely come from a council from something I had never heard of before: the Witherspoon Institute.

What is that?

The Witherspoon Institute describes itself as “an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” Here is what Wikipedia has to say.

It would appear to be a very right wing group that pushes “pro-life” and anti-gay rights causes. I think it is a safe bet they do not like President Obama.

Who are the people behind this institute?

Actually, one is a fairly famous stem cell scientist, Dr. Markus Grompe of OHSU in Portland. When I was a postdoc, I once interviewed with Dr. Grompe for a faculty position and was made to understand well into the visit that he is opposed to hESC research on moral grounds. Probably a mistake on my part during the interview to say I was interested in studying Myc function in hESC, huh?

I have no problem with Dr. Grompe, his research is quite interesting and highly respected, and I think good people can disagree about hESC research.

His presence on this council, which describes him here, may nonetheless be of interest to his fellow stem cell researchers.

The rest of the “fellows” of the Witherspoon sound impressive enough based on their degrees and positions, but that doesn’t mean they have any better insight into stem cell research and ethics than you readers of this blog.  In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite. However, these fellows have money and look impressive so they are equipped to cause trouble.

Regardless, I think with the current 3-judge panel that there’s a strong likelihood that hESC research will not be allowed to be federally funded come this fall. At that point there will be more appeals, etc., but a serious concern is that in the mean time the court may file an injunction against NIH funding hESC so until the issue is resolved, NIH may be hamstrung. Then if the US Supreme Court even opts not to hear the case, the research will remain illegal.

What can you do? If you care about hESC research and hope for millions of patients, rather than get discouraged by developments such as these, you need to fight for what you believe in. The reason I do posts like these is that I believe that part of this fight is knowing our enemy and understanding the challenges they throw at us. In their minds if you are a patient for human “modern” medicine and adult stem cells don’t work, then you are just out of luck. They are the pro-death movement more than the pro-life movement in reality. They are the same folks who love the death penalty.

One of the most important steps is to work to do everything we can to get Obama re-elected. Another step is to work to broaden the Democratic majority in the Senate and try to make gains in the House. In addition, a very important step is to publicly show your support for hESC research. Talk to your friends and family about it. Contact your representatives (I’ve done this now many times–they don’t bite!) I also believe it is especially crucial to reach out to Republicans. As much as I have been critical of Republican Leaders for their rhetoric against hope, I believe we need to do our best to make our movement as bi-partisan as possible. Disease and suffering are equal opportunity scourges that bestow enormous suffering on everyone regardless of political party.

4 Comments


  1. Christopher O. Tollefsen (in brief) hails from the same University in SC as Vincent Dammani, who was busted with Stowe and Morales. So of course he is an “expert”.


  2. Everyone reading this article should Tweet and re-Tweet it. If anyone still thinks staying “above politics” will allow stem cell research to continue– take a look at the four Republican Presidential candidates position on “personhood”– it would ban not only federal funding of hescr, but also criminalize it altogether. If a blastocyst has the legal rights of a full human being, than hescr becomes murder…sound crazy? Yes. But the reality could shut down the research just when it is picking up steam.–Don C. Reed

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