hESC Opponents File with Supreme Court

Scientists fighting the federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research bring their case before the country’s highest court.

Oct 12, 2012
Jef Akst

Wikimedia, Nissim BenvenistyIt’s been 3 years since the legality of federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells (hESC) was first brought to the US court system, and despite some tense moments, including a temporary ban on National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for hESC research, the courts have continued to uphold the legality of such funding. Now, the plaintiffs are taking the final step—filing a 36-page petition, known as a writ of certiorari, with the US Supreme Court.

The petition asks the court to consider whether the federal appeals court, which ruled in support of a lower court’s finding that such funding should be allowed, was right in its assessment that such funding doesn't violate the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bans federal funding for any research involving the destruction of human embryos. Secondly, the researchers ask the court about the proper handling of the thousands of comments opposing hESC received by the NIH after the agency issued new guidelines in July 2009 that allowed for the submission of new hESC lines eligible for federal funding, above and beyond the 13 approved under the Bush administration, as ordered by President Barack Obama. The federal appeals court agreed that the NIH could ignore these comments, while the plaintiffs think the opponents should be heard.

"We're at the end game here, hopefully, and we'll see if the court accept or rejects" the petition, Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., which has supported NIH in the case, told ScienceInsider. It’s possible that the Supreme Court justices will simply not agree to hear the case, as the Court takes less than 1.4 percent of the petitions it receives each year. The plaintiffs raise "awfully legal, academic-type questions,” Mazzaschi said. The Supreme Court is “not being asked to judge Dickey-Wicker." The court’s decision about whether or not to hear the case is expected before its term ends in June 2013.

Furthermore, Mazzaschi added, there is another possible way this could go: if Mitt Romney is elected President next month, he could issue another executive order that could affect federal funding for hESC research.