Stem Cell Debate Goes to Voters

By: - October 5, 2006 12:00 am

Voters are being asked to weigh job creation and potential life-saving cures against moral concerns over the destruction of human embryos in an impassioned battle over a Missouri ballot measure supporting the science.

While the Show Me state is the only one with the question on the Nov. 7 ballot, the controversy over embryonic stem cell research is playing prominently in the Wisconsin governor’s race and cropping up in state races scattered across the country. A few Republican gubernatorial candidates are breaking ranks with the Bush administration by running on their support for the controversial research.

The outcome of the initiative in Missouri – where embryonic stem cell research also has gotten caught up in a tight U.S. Senate race between State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) and incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R) – could influence future federal and state efforts to either block or support the science, political analysts say.

McCaskill has made support for embryonic stem cell research a keystone of her campaign, while Talent steadfastly opposes the science on moral grounds.

“If the initiative wins in a battleground state like Missouri, where both Republicans and Democrats have been elected statewide, it is likely to embolden other states that have an economic interest in supporting the science,” said Michael Werner of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an advocacy group for the life sciences.

Scientists are eager to experiment with stem cells from human embryos because the cells have the capacity to develop into any organ tissue in the body. Non-controversial adult stem cell research also is being pursued, but scientists say adult cells do not hold the same potential for cures and therapies.

While Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment would not commit state funds to the science, it would ensure its legality, unleashing private funding and removing a cloud over the research created by repeated state legislative attempts to criminalize it.

Last year, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), an anti-abortion conservative, opposed a measure pushed by conservative legislators that would have made involvement in the science a felony. Blunt worked to derail the bill because he feared it would cause scientists and the research money backing them to leave the state.

In a close state race, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is using his support of embryonic stem cell research to differentiate himself from conservative challenger U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R), who opposes using human embryos for the research. Doyle wants his state, where scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison first discovered stem cell techniques in 1998, to garner at least 10 percent of the more than 100,000 jobs nationwide he and others predict the science will generate. Currently, Wisconsin has a biotechnology workforce of 22,000 that generates nearly $7 million for the local economy.

Political analysts agree that Doyle’s persistent, albeit unsuccessful, calls for the state Legislature to commit funds to the science give him an edge in the governor’s race. Green, who is slightly behind in the polls and under attack over campaign finance issues, opposes the destruction of human embryos although he supports research using adult stem cells.

Nearby, in job-hungry Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is waging a tough re-election bid against anti-abortion Republican Dick DeVos, who has blasted her efforts to overturn laws in the state that restrict the science.

Granholm has argued that removing restrictions on the science would reduce health care costs and allow the state’s emerging life-sciences industry to flourish.

“While President Bush is building up walls in Washington to block this life-saving research, we have the opportunity to tear them down in Michigan,” Granholm has written in an appeal to Michiganders to sign a petition asking state lawmakers to repeal anti-stem cell research laws.

The Midwest is not the only political stage where science is colliding with religion over stem cell research.

On both coasts, Republican governors up for re-election in November are touting their record of supporting the science for its medical potential and economic opportunities in a clear break with Bush administration policies that limit the research.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell repeatedly mention their support for the science in campaign ads.

In Massachusetts, home to stem-cell leader Harvard University, both candidates for the open governor’s seat have come out in support of the science, even though the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, has played up her association with incumbent Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who last year vetoed a bill that would promote the research.

Democratic candidate Deval Patrick has suggested issuing bonds to support the research, because he says it “provides hope” to those suffering from a host of crippling and deadly diseases.

In the South, Georgia and Kentucky stem cell advocates already are taking steps to get the issue on the ballot in 2008.

Like Missouri, their efforts come in reaction to conservative Republican legislators’ attempts to criminalize the science. Both states are considering a Missouri-style initiative that would guarantee the legality of the science and citizens’ access to medical treatments derived from stem cell research, but would not commit state funds.

A statewide poll of 600 Georgia voters — funded by the Georgia Biomedical Partnership , backers of the proposed initiative — found 63 percent approval for “research on stem cells taken from donated embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded.”

In Kentucky, first-time Democratic statehouse candidate Chris Frost is calling for a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2008. Not to be outdone, his opponent, state Rep. Bill Farmer (R), says he also supports the science, pointing out that not all Republicans agree on the issue.

In July, right before President George Bush vetoed a bill that would have lifted his 2001 restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Democratic governors from Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin urged Congress to push for stem cell funding.

Some of those same governors continue to publicize their support for the research in their re-election bids.

The controversial science, which has rocked Congress, the Bush administration and state capitols for the past five years, is considered a wedge issue that could drive voters to the polls and divide the Republican electorate.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans approve of embryonic stem cell research, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll . Supporters include high-profile Republicans, such as Nancy Reagan, with loved ones who have suffered from debilitating diseases for which the research offers hopes of a cure.

Opponents, including the Bush administration and those in the anti-abortion movement, object to the research because it involves the destruction of human embryos. They argue scientists instead should pursue experiments on adult cells.

In Missouri, a recent statewide poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed 64 percent of voters plan to say “yes” to proposed Amendment 2, which would ensure Missouri patients have access to embryonic stem cell therapies and allow Missouri researchers to conduct “any research permitted under federal law.”

The constitutional amendment also would ban human cloning, require public oversight of the research, impose criminal and civil penalties for any violations and prohibit state or local governments from “preventing or discouraging lawful stem cell research, therapies and cures.”

The nonpartisan group behind the initiative – The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures – includes more than 60,000 individual citizens and more than 100 faith, civic, patient and medical groups, making it the largest coalition ever formed in Missouri to support a ballot initiative, said spokesperson Connie Farrow.

If approved, the amendment would unshackle local scientists and could attract other researchers to the state, which is home to stem-cell innovator Washington University .

It also would allow major local donors, Jim and Virginia Stowers, to continue funding studies in Missouri at The Stowers Institute for Medical Research – rather than diverting their money to Harvard University in Massachusetts , a more science-friendly state.”

Twenty-seven states have laws on the books restricting embryonic stem cell research, including South Dakota, which has banned the science altogether.

Six states have ensured the legality of the science and committed state money to fill the gap left by the federal government’s funding restrictions. So far, California has committed $3 billion for the research; Connecticut has committed $20 million; Illinois, $15 million; New Jersey, $5.5 million; Maryland, $15 million; and Massachusetts, $15 million.

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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.