Stem-Cell Science an Election Issue in 3 States

By: - October 9, 2008 12:00 am

While the ongoing Wall Street rescue has riveted much of the country’s attention, voters in three states – Michigan, North Carolina and Washington state – are being asked to consider a different controversial issue: whether potential cures for millions of Americans are worth the moral cost of destroying human embryos.

Stem-cell research – which uses three-day-old surplus embryos from fertilization clinics to find cures for a variety of deadly and debilitating conditions such as spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gherig’s and Parkinson’s disease – was a pivotal issue in several state elections four years ago. And the question of whether to ban or support the science played a leading role in the outcome of the 2004 congressional races

But this year, both Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain say they support federal funding of the science, although McCain would limit funding to studies that do not involve human cloning techniques.

As a result, state politicians who favor the science can no longer point to a lack of support in Washington as cause to take action, and tanking state budgets make it unlikely any politician would advocate appropriating state revenues for the research. At the same time, politicians who oppose the science on moral grounds are loath to talk about limiting the research, since a wide majority of Americans say they approve of it.

Still, two Democratic gubernatorial candidates in close races are slamming their opponents for failure to support the potentially life-saving research. And in Michigan, where the moral quandary is also an economic issue, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is supporting a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to repeal the state’s existing ban on the studies.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, recently launched a television ad featuring Sarah Witt, a former marathon runner who is now paralyzed by a neurological disease that stem-cell scientists are trying to cure.

Her Republican opponent, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, responded with an ad featuring his sister who says her brother is sensitive to the problems of people suffering with incurable diseases because both parents died of debilitating illnesses. She blasts Perdue, saying “using the victim of a terrible disease for political gain is shameful.”

With the exception of an unsuccessful 2007 bill proposing state grants for the science, North Carolina lawmakers have not considered the issue in the past two years and neither has the governor or the lieutenant governor.

So, why is it a campaign issue?

Political experts say stem-cell research is a surrogate for the abortion debate and serves as a litmus test of a candidate’s liberal or conservative credentials. And because most voters approve of the science, it has become “political quicksand” for anyone who opposes it, says Patrick Kelly, state political director for the Biotechnology Industry Association , which advocates for the science.

In Washington state’s close gubernatorial race, Democratic incumbent Chris Gregoire, a vocal supporter of the science, is airing ads to remind voters that her rival, Republican businessman Dino Rossi, opposes it. Gregoire’s ad features a Washington state resident suffering from Parkinson’s disease who says that stem-cell research could help. “That’s why I can’t understand politicians like Dino Rossi,” the man, Jim Lortz, says.

As in the North Carolina race, political experts point out that stem-cell research is not currently on Washington state’s agenda. In 2005, Gregoire created a Life Sciences Discovery Fund , but no grants have been awarded for embryonic research, and the issue hasn’t come up in the legislature in the last three years.

But in Michigan, the stakes are high. Hundreds of jobs and big university and private research projects hinge on this year’s battle over the science. Proposal 2 asks voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to remove the state’s ban on embryonic studies and prevent future laws “that prevent, restrict or discourage stem-cell research, future therapies and cures.”

This Friday, Oct. 10, former president Bill Clinton and other luminaries are expected to attend a fund raising event in Pontiac held by Cure Michigan to make a last push for what many see as an economically critical proposal.

Like five other states – Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota – Michigan has a law on the books that makes the research illegal. Granholm and other supporters of the science say removal of the law would allow the state’s renowned universities and private research institutions to move forward with projects that would attract money and jobs to one of the nation’s most economically depressed states.

Since August 2001, when President George Bush curtailed federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, the question of whether to ban or promote the science has been debated in nearly every state capital.

In January 2004, New Jersey became the first state to underwrite the studies, appropriating million in state grants. California was next with a November 2004 voter-approved fund of billion, and over the next three years, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and New York set aside money for the research. Three states, Massachusetts, Missouri and Iowa, removed legal barriers to the science.

In the past, both Democratic and Republican governors have supported funding for the science to attract top scientists they say will help launch a multi-billion dollar medical science industry.

Although state funding of the science is not likely any time soon given the economic downturn, the outcome of November’s elections in Michigan, North Carolina and Washington state will affect the states’ image as science-friendly – or not.

“State policies will determine which states will become magnets for high-tech research and which will become irradiated zones for the same kind of research,” said Daniel Perry of the Alliance for Aging Research , a citizen advocacy group for stem-cell research.

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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.