Stem-Cell Wars Rage in State Capitols

By: - July 20, 2006 12:00 am

President Bush’s veto of a measure to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research leaves a handful of states on the contentious cutting edge of government efforts to boost the fledgling science in the United States .

Governors and lawmakers in five states — California , Connecticut , Illinois , Maryland and New Jersey — have forged policies to support the controversial science with state funds, but the process has been fraught. Like the bitter debates on Capitol Hill this month, statehouse battles have been pitched, with some lawmakers trying to go even further than the federal government in restricting the science.

The Bush administration and others, primarily in the anti-abortion movement, oppose embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of human embryos. They argue that scientists should abandon embryonic stem cell studies and pursue research on adult cells, which they maintain also have great potential.

But scientists and their advocates say research on embryonic cells holds the most promise because the undifferentiated embryonic cells can be developed into cells that form any organ of the body. Adult stem cells, from blood, bone marrow or brain tissue, for example, can only be used in studies that apply to the organs they came from.

Adult stem cell research is not controversial. Federal funding is not restricted, and no one opposes it. Although federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been curtailed, its practice is not restricted by federal law.

While five states have appropriated funds to support the research, governors and lawmakers in other states continue to fight tough political battles over the issue.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D), who last year vetoed a bill that would have prohibited embryonic stem cell research in the state that pioneered the science, has continued to seek legislative support for his proposal to provide million in public and private funds for a stem cell research institute on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where scientists first developed the research technique.

Doyle’s moves are seen as politically risky in a gubernatorial election year in which he faces a close contest with U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R), a vocal opponent of research involving embryonic tissue.

And in Missouri, a citizens group has raised record-breaking campaign funds to push a voter referendum ensuring the legality of the science, paralleling Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s battle against fellow party members to secure the states’ share of what is predicted to be a multi-billion-dollar medical research business evolving from embryonic stem cell studies.

Last year, Blunt, a pro-life conservative, vetoed a measure pushed by conservative legislators that would have made involvement in the science a felony. Blunt derailed the bill because he feared it would cause scientists and the research money backing them to leave the state.

Later in the year, his fears came true when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) mounted a letter-writing campaign to lure Missouri ‘s top scientists across the Mississippi River to his state, where the legality of stem cell research is ensured.

In Massachusetts , Gov. Mitt Romney (R) last year vetoed a bill promoting the research, but the Legislature overrode him. The new law, intended to support embryonic stem-cell research leaders at Harvard University and other institutions in the state, establishes the legality of the science and sets up a bank for parents who want to donate umbilical cord blood for research.

Although some states are providing funding for the science, their resources are limited. Without federal funding, embryonic stem cell research advocates say the United States will fall behind in this emerging field. As a result, states have urged the federal government to lift its funding ban.  

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) — who broke party ranks in 2004 by supporting state funding of the research – urged Bush not to veto the stem cell law. “Such an action would send a disastrous message to limit the role the federal government must play in pursuing the most promising forms of basic scientific research,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a July 18 letter.

And earlier this week, Democratic governors from Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Delaware, Iowa, New Jersey and Oregon signed a letter urging U.S. Senate leaders to approve the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Bush now has vetoed, to lift the president’s 2001 restrictions on federal funding for the controversial science.

As state lawmakers move to fill the gap left by Bush’s 2001 decision to withhold federal funding for research involving embryos produced after Aug. 9 of that year, they face complex issues and impassioned debates.

On one side are pro-life advocates — intent on establishing that life begins at conception — who oppose the emerging research because it involve s the destruction of human embryos.

On the other side are many, including high-profile Republicans such as Nancy Reagan, with loved ones who have suffered from debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes for which the research offers hopes of a cure.

In addition, some pro-business Republicans oppose abortion but support public funding of the science for economic reasons, causing a schism in GOP strategy on the issue in some states.

Following is a rundown of state actions for and against embryonic stem cell research:

  • Twenty-six states – Arizona,  Arkansas, Florida,  Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming have laws imposing some restrictions on the controversial research.  
  • In California — the first state to allocate funds for stem cell research through a voter initiative in 2004 — billion in state funds dedicated to the research have been tied up in court over questions of patent rights and the authority of the group — the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine — the state appointed to disburse the funds. Schwartzenegger this week granted a million loan to help the group continue operating while legal issues are resolved.
  • In Connecticut, where Republican Gov. Jodi Rell signed legislation in June 2005 providing million in funding for the science over 10 years, the state’s research program recently said it would fund up to million in research projects this year. By its deadline this month, the state had received more than 70 applications.
  • In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has twice taken the unusual step of bypassing the legislature to allocate state funds for the research. This week he ordered million in existing state funds be allocated for stem cell research grants. Last year he allocated million. In both cases, the governor’s moves followed failed legislative attempts to allocate even more funds to the research. In April, the state granted the first million to 10 Illinois research projects. Blagojevich is currently supporting legislative that would allocate another million from the state’s tobacco settlement to fund the science over five years.
  • New Jersey — the second state to legalize stem cell research in January 2004 — became the first to disburse funds. The state granted million of a total allocation of .5 million to 17 research projects in December 2005. Earlier last year, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill calling for a bond referendum on the November ballot allocating another million to stem cell research. The 2005 initiative failed to pass the House, but a similar measure allocating million was under consideration this year, prior to the state’s budget crisis.
  • The Maryland Legislature passed a law in March, signed by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., creating a state panel that will authorize and award grants based on annual funding availability. This year’s stem cell budget is million.
  • Massachusetts , while it has not provided any state funding, has smoothed the way for scientists in the state by passing a law making the research legal. (A 30-year-old state law had required research on embryos or fetuses to be approved by the local district attorney.) In addition, the state created a bank for umbilical cord blood donations that can be used in the research.
  • In New York , the state Assembly approved legislation in January that would provide million in state funds for embryonic stem cell research and other regenerative medicine projects over the next two years. The bill is currently under consideration in the state Senate.
  • In North Carolina , home to a growing biotech industry, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allocate million in state funds to the science, although passage is considered unlikely before the legislative session ends July 26.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.