Forecast

Obama's stem-cell setback: What's next?

Six theories on what happens now that a federal judge has blocked Obama's attempt to expand federal funding for stem-cell research

Federal judge Royce Lamberth surprised everyone by striking down President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding U.S. government financing for research on embryonic stem cells. Such funding, he ruled, violates the 1995 Dickey-Wicker Amendment against using federal money to destroy embryos. Obama vowed to appeal the ruling, but it immediately threw into doubt millions of dollars in federal funds and dozens of ongoing research projects. So what happens now? Here are six theories:

1. The ruling won't survive the appealLamberth's ruling will be "difficult to square... with Supreme Court precedent," says Ian Millhiser at Think Progress. The Obama administration, like Clinton's and Bush's, "quite plausibly read the Dickey-Wicker Amendment" to allow for funding of existing stem-cell lines, and Chevron v. NRDC advises judges to overturn such interpretations only if they're "entirely implausible."

2. This is the end of federal stem-cell researchUnfortunately for Obama, the appellate court hearing the case is stuffed with Lamberth-like "very ideological Republicans," says Michael Tomasky in The Guardian. And with Republicans blocking his reasonable nominees to the two long-vacant spots on the D.C. appellate court, "all the people out there hoping for cures for Parkinson's" and other diseases are out of luck.

3. Congress will step in and fix thisRoyce Lamberth is clearly a "crazy judge," and his ruling is built "on flimsy grounds with sloppy reasoning," says William Saletan in Slate. But it's not the courts' job to set federal stem-cell policy. The House and Senate twice explicitly allowed federal funding for stem cells — Bush vetoed both bills — and with Obama in office, "the Dickey-Wicker mess should end where it began: in Congress."

4. The ruling could salvage California's economyLamberth really messed things up for most stem-cell scientists, says Shelley DuBois in Fortune, but he "set California further apart as a mecca" for this potentially life-saving research. Since the state's voters in 2004 decided to shun federal money for state financial support, California's now set up to be "the first state to receive real financial benefits from the field." 

5. Private groups will fill in the gapThe only certainty from Lamberth's ruling is that it will "spark the stem cell wars anew," says Ronald Bailey in Reason. And since about 60 percent of Americans support embryonic stem-cell research, this "battle front in the culture war" may actually benefit Democrats. But while it sorts itself out legally and politically, there's luckily "a lot of private and state funding available for stem cell research."

6. Maybe this will end the stem cell warThe upcoming midterm elections "amplified" the "reactions of glee and alarm" rulings like this always provoke, says David Gibson in Politics Daily. But according to a "deeply reported — and little-noticed" — AP story this month, adult stem cells "are showing far more promise in treating diseases" than their embryonic cousins, without the "bitter and costly fight over the morality of using embryos."

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