The US Justice Department moved Tuesday to block a court ruling preventing use of government funds for embryonic stem cell research.
"The government is seeking a stay of the court's injunction to prevent the irreparable human and financial harm that could occur if these life-saving research projects are forced to abruptly shut down," said Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
"The court's order causes irrevocable harm to the millions of extremely sick or injured people who stand to benefit from continuing research as well as to the taxpayers who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this research," a Justice Department statement said.
The Justice lawyers filed the notice of appeal and the proposed stay with U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, who has effectively reimposed an eight-year-old ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. One of President Barack Obama's first initiatives was to lift the ban.
Judge Royce Lamberth had ruled in favor of a coalition of groups, including several Christian organizations, which had sought a temporary injunction on funding of the research ahead of a planned lawsuit.
"Plaintiffs have demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits," Lamberth said.
The coalition argues that President Obama's March 2009 lifting of a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research violates legislation that prohibits government funding for research in which embryos are discarded or destroyed.
"ESC (embryonic stem cell) research is clearly research in which an embryo is destroyed," Lamberth's ruling said.
"To conduct ESC research, ESCs must be derived from an embryo. The process of deriving ESCs from an embryo results in the destruction of the embryo. Thus ESC research necessarily depends upon the destruction of a human embryo."
Predictably the ruling stunned the administration and it vowed to appeal, and it has done so now.
In a petition before the Lamberth's court, the government requested that the judge's order not go into effect before the appeals court can rule.
The request was "to avoid terminating research projects midstream, invalidating results in process and impeding or negating years of scientific progress toward finding new treatments for devastating illnesses such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and blindness," the filing said.
The government said if Lamberth does not grant the stay by September 7, the government would "present their stay request to the Court of Appeals the following day".
In that event, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, would likely rule quickly on the request for a stay, while it schedules briefs and arguments on the legal merits of the case which may take months.
Government lawyers filed the appeal on behalf of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the National Institutes of Health, and its director, Francis Collins.
Collins said NIH has invested over $546 million in taxpayers' money in human embryonic stem cell research since 2001. In a 12-page statement attached to the appeal, Collins said the court order prevents NIH from providing $54 million in funds to 24 human embryonic research projects currently under way that were expecting to receive funds within the next month. He said another 199 grants would be discontinued for projects which were to be awarded funding after the September 30 deadline ordered by the court.
"We've said from day one that embryonic stem cell research is a top priority for this administration, and we're going to do everything possible to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of this injunction," said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.