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UCLA School of Law Expert Available to Discuss Court Decision Halting Funding of Stem Cell Research

August 24, 2010 - Yesterday's federal court decision by District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, halting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, is "spectacularly bad law," according to UCLA School of Law Professor Russell Korobkin, author of Stem Cell Century: Law and Policy for a Breakthrough Technology (Yale Univ. Press, 2007). 

"The ruling, if its stands, will not only block the Obama Administration's relaxation of Bush-era funding rules and throw the nation's stem cell research effort into disarray, it will even, and ironically, render the trickle of money that the Bush Administration allowed to support ESC research illegal," Korobkin said.   

Since 1995, Congress has annually renewed an obscure amendment to spending bills that prohibits the use of federal money for scientific "research in which … embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subject to risk of injury or death…."  The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have all interpreted the so-called Dickey-Wicker Amendment to mean that government funds cannot support the creation of embryonic stem cell lines, a procedure that destroys the donor embryo, but that there is no statutory bar to funding scientists who use the resulting stem cell lines as tools in the search for cures for a raft of debilitating diseases and disabilities.  Since the appearance of Dickey-Wicker, embryonic stem cell lines have been created with mostly private money, and successive administrations have used Presidential proclamations and Executive Orders to spar over whether federal dollars would be employed to turn these raw materials into treatments. 

Korobkin characterized the court's holding as "any research that bears a relationship to research that is ineligible for federal funds is part of the same 'project' and therefore also ineligible."  The problem, he adds, is that "this logic would equate research on acorns with research on oak trees, research on milk with research on cows, and research on air with research on oxygen.  Sure, in each case, the former would not be possible without the latter, but this does not make them the same thing." 

According to Korobkin, the key to properly understanding the Dickey-Wicker Amendment is to remember that it is an appropriations rule.  "The relevant question, therefore, is for what purpose the requested federal money would be used.  If the money sought is to be used for a prohibited purpose - i.e., destroying embryos - the law will not permit funding.  If the money will be used for any other purpose, the grant is legally permissible."

Contact:Professor Korobkin can be contacted for comment at 310-825-1994, 310-266-3951 or korobkin@law.ucla.edu.