President Obama’s most important scientific political initiative, the decree that gave the green light to public research using stem cells, has been rendered null and void by the decision of a federal judge in Washington D.C. By declaring the presidential decree “illegal,” the judicial decision brings research in progress in scores of laboratories to a standstill and returns the planet’s best mechanism of biomedical research to the stagnation it was already suffering during former President Bush’s eight years in office. It is a decision against Obama, but also against scientific progress.

From its beginnings in the end of the 1980s, research with embryonic stem cells has been very determined by politics. Bearing in mind his base of evangelical voters, Bush aligned himself with the Christian right all the way through the end of his second term. The current lawsuit also has its origin in religious groups that consider week-old embryos, spares from in vitro fertilization frozen in clinics, to be human beings. In place of “killing them” to obtain the stem cells, the plaintiffs promote their “adoption” by sterile couples. Religious conservatism in Spain maintains these same ideas that also underlie their rejection of abortion.

The admission to procedure of the lawsuit by Chief Judge Royce Lambert is, without a doubt, not based on religious premises, but rather on a clearly judicial argument. In the United States, a law prohibits the destruction of embryos to obtain stem cell lines. To avoid this obstacle, Obama’s decree only permitted public research with already established cell lines that do not destroy embryos. But Judge Lambert interpreted that if the first step of the research involves the destruction of an embryo, the entire research implies it as well.

For 10 years, North American scientists were pulled away from one of the greatest lines of biomedical research, one that promised to find treatments for now incurable diseases in the near future. It seemed that these adverse times had come to an end with Obama. Now it is obvious that this is not true and that the matter could require a more ambitious legal reform than a presidential decree. If he wants to do it, Obama will not lack support, even from a part of his political adversaries.