Is embryonic stem cell research a target after Roe?

When I first started this blog back in 2010 the most contentious issue on the more political side of our field was federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. It was something you couldn’t take for granted.

Knoepfler lab stem cells, embryonic stem cell research
Human embryonic stem cells grown in the Knoepfler lab. This is a colony of probably 500-1000 cells. Underneath are “feeder cells” that provide growth factors and other substances that the stem cells need.

Some history on embryonic stem cell funding in the US

There were times back then when funding of embryonic stem cell research was not legal. Some younger stem cell biologists may not realize that was a reality for a time.

Religious and other groups heavily invested in targeting embryonic stem cell research in general. It was the hot button stem cell issue of the time.

Presidents contemplated it and took action.

Things today seem starkly different.

After the eight years of the Obama administration and surprisingly even through the Trump administration, embryonic stem cell research has not drawn the same debate anymore. While former VP Mike Pence was an ardent foe of this research, he didn’t really seem to do anything about it during his time in office. Trump didn’t really bring it up.

While there were some efforts against human fetal tissue research, on the embryonic stem cell side it was unexpectedly quiet. That was a relief.

However, things could change rapidly moving forward and for the negative. How likely is that?

Embryonic stem cell research in a post-Roe U.S.

Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion is or will soon be illegal in around half of our country. Could this embolden opponents of embryonic stem cell research again?

It’s hard to predict.

SCOTUS has gotten much more conservative over the past five years. It’s not hard to imagine this court supporting an injunction on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research if it was ever brought before them.

However, I don’t know that a new case will ever get there. The American public seems more supportive of this research funding than almost ever before based on recent polling.

Also, who would have standing to bring such a case anymore?

Looking ahead: revisiting old battles?

Thinking back in time again to around 2010 the anti-embryonic stem cell folks had energy and momentum.

I don’t see that now, but the R0e ruling could be a spark and provide funding to go after old and new targets including IVF itself.

A new Vox piece covering the overturning of Roe brought up the embryonic stem cell question too:

Old battles over medical research or treatment could also resurface, Tipton said. Modern science has developed treatments for spinal cord injuries, myelofibrosis, and even certain cancers by relying on stem cells. More treatments are in clinical trials right now. But their prospects could be compromised if access to those materials is limited. Some stem cells are collected from adult body tissue, but others come from embryos.

Much of this will depend on how aggressive anti-abortion advocates decide to be, and on the success of abortion rights advocates in mounting a political and legal response to a ruling overturning Roe.

It’s important to note that embryonic stem cell research is actually unrelated to abortion at a practical level. These powerful cells are derived from human embryos generated in labs in IVF procedures. However, they both link back to the question of when a human life begins.

Since human iPS cells are now being used to make ever more powerful models of human embryos in the lab that resemble the real thing in some concrete ways, I wouldn’t be shocked if some opponents of embryonic stem cell research, who used to tout iPS cells as the best thing ever, now turn against iPS cells too.

1 thought on “Is embryonic stem cell research a target after Roe?”

  1. Paul,

    I actually published an article that discusses this topic. I think it is likely that “pro embryo groups” will attempt to pass or strengthen state laws against human embryo research and that those may be among the most successful of efforts aimed at ex vivo embryos. Unlike embryos used in IVF, research embryos do not result in babies (and anti-abortion supports like babies); they can be argued, with some truth, to have rendered much less important by iPSCs; and they haven’t delivered any great and obvious breakthroughs in the nearly 25 years they’ve been used.

    For the full analysis (along with why the Court is going to kill Roe – published on SSRN before the Dobbs decision, but not a tough guess – and, mainly, the likely limited impact of Dobbs on in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic testing at

    Very soon to be available (also for free as are all our articles) in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences:

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on my (various) arguments in it.

    Hank Greely

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