Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s new rules on federal funding for stem cell research, which reversed the Bush policy of prohibiting such funding in most cases. And I’m not usually a big fan of dismissing cases based on standing, but in this case there was just no legal basis for the challenge at all.

The plaintiffs in the case were the Christian Medical Association; Nightlight, a Christian adoption agency that urges the adoption of frozen embryos from fertility clinics; two doctors, James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, who do adult stem cell research but refuse to do embryonic research; two couples who have adopted such embryos; and – amusingly – the embryos themselves. Yes, they sued on behalf of all the snowflakes sitting in fertility clinic freezers.

The court dismissed the case for all plaintiffs based on a lack of standing. And it’s really hard to imagine what the legal argument might be for the suit by any of them. Here’s how the court summarizes their claims:

Plaintiffs allege that the guidelines, by allowing NIH to fund hESC research, will cause them irreparable harm. Specifically, Drs. Sherely and Deisher contend that the new guidelines will “result in increased competition for limited federal funding and will thereby injure [their] ability to successfully compete for . . . NIH stem cell research funds.” Nightlife alleges that the guidelines will cause a decrease in the number of embryos available for adoption…The Nelsons and Flynns maintain that the guidelines will “jeopardize the likelihood that embryos will become available” for them to adopt in the future. Finally, CMA alleges that the guidelines will frustrate its purpose and require it to expend significant resources to combat the ethical problems posed by hESC research.

Those are some profoundly silly legal claims. The Christian Medical Association seriously thinks that a change in government policy that they oppose will cause them “irreparable harm” because it will force them to spend money and resources opposing that policy? If that was a legal basis for overturning a law, no law could ever be passed for any reason.

The claim from the researchers is equally absurd. So a change in NIH policy limits the availability of funds for the research you’d like to do and makes it less likely you’ll get a grant? Okay. So what? Where is the legal issue in that situation, exactly? What provision of the constitution could you possibly claim is being violated here? This is the kind of thing that would get a student in law school a failing grade if they turned it in.

The court dismisses this on standing grounds, but I would prefer it if they had dismissed it for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. I suppose there’s some procedural reason that requires that you consider standing before considering whether the plaintiff has stated a justiciable claim, but it’s the justiciability that is the real problem here.

In this case, there simply is no legally protected interest at stake for any of the plaintiffs. You can read the full ruling here (PDF).