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Stem cell research funding debate hits the states
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—Since President Barack Obama lifted federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research March 9, statewide conservative politicians and right-wing legislators have renewed efforts to oppose the controversial research—all in the name of protecting the family and saving taxpayers money.
Although many states have followed suit and lifted bans against funding stem cell research, Missouri legislators seek to undo a 2006 amendment to its state constitution that allowed public funding of it.
In December, Missouri Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon pre-filed House Joint Resolution 49, which adds a new section to the "Missouri taxpayer protection initiative" to be placed on the November ballot. At press time, the bill was scheduled to be introduced Jan. 6, when the 95th General Assembly convenes in Jefferson City.
The resolution states, "it shall be unlawful (in the state of Missouri) to expend, pay or grant any public funds for abortion not medically necessary to save the life of the mother, for abortion services, for human cloning or for prohibited human research."
Davis believes she has the necessary General Assembly and voter support to push the proposal through its passage.
"I've spoken to a lot of my constituents who are in favor of this bill," Davis says.
Just in case, Davis explained her position in a report mailed to voters, entitled "Life Matters," which read in part:
"During economically depressed times, it is more important than ever to protect the taxpayers. The state government's budget is about 11 percent below projection for this year. Rather than seeing this as a negative, this is a great opportunity to reprioritize. We need to clarify what is important and what is not.
"This resolution allows the voters to decide if they want their public tax dollars funding abortion, cloning and human experimentation with living embryos that have been relinquished by their parents.
The amendment does not stop controversial research. It only restricts who pays for the kind of research that violates the consciences of those who believe in the dignity of human life … This proposal will not affect those who want to perform abortions, human cloning and experimentation on frozen human beings whose parents have signed them away. It merely requires questionable research to be funded with private money.
"The proposed constitutional amendment has the potential of saving the state from squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on projects that may lead to a dead end. If this research is viable and based upon promising results, it is capable of developing through business capital and entrepreneurship without consuming public money. The laboratories studying cures through adult stem cell research are already finding success. Why not work on projects that are humane, wholesome and do not harm the consciences of scientists or taxpayers?
"Protecting human life is a very progressive and noble position to take. It is not appropriate for us to presume that all scientists want to do abortions and human embryo experimentation. Why let those who want to destroy innocent human life perform these acts in a state that respects and dignifies life?"
Among Davis' detractors is the Missouri Biotechnology Association (MOBIO), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to development and growth of the Missouri biotechnology and biomedical industry, which does not see Davis' proposal as a serious threat.
"We are historically quite concerned when these types of new research restrictions are threatened, as it does negatively impact Missouri's pro-research national image, which the top scientists do pay attention to when they consider relocating or taking a position with one of our tier-one world class research companies or institutions," says Kelley Gillespie, an MOBIO spokesperson. "MOBIO's political analysis of this particular filed legislation is such that we don't see it as a credible threat for 2010, that the super majority of Missouri's legislative members will not follow Rep. Davis' lead on this topic, and it is considered—amongst the nearly 2000 bills that will be filed in the 2010 session—one that most observers will categorize as fairly fringe to the central issues that must be dealt with, balancing the state budget and empowering the state with new economic development initiatives that are technology- and science-based.
Missouri's legislative leaders, on a bipartisan basis, are headed in a different direction in leading the state than where Rep Davis' focus is, Gillespie says.
"The stem cell issue was battled out in 2006 in Missouri, and freedom to conduct ethical research is now protected in our state constitution, placed there by a majority of Missouri voters, directly," Gillespie says. "There is a very high hurdle for Rep Davis or any anti-stem cell legislator to change the constitutional protections. One or even a larger number of legislators cannot do so unilaterally ... at worst, if the legislature were to pass something onerous, it would then have to go the additional step of being presented to a statewide vote."
Within Missouri's Constitution, freedom to research is protected, she says. Davis' approach is to "chisel away with a broad definition of public funding which goes well beyond simply stopping state appropriations," she adds.
Jim Greenwood, CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an advocate for those involved in the research and development of innovative healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology technologies, says, "research on both adult and embryonic stem cells holds great promise to produce new therapies and possibly cures for the millions of patients in the U.S. and around the world suffering from cancer, diabetes, Alzheimers's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and other life-threatening diseases and conditions."
Writing for News, Politics, Science & Technology, Chad Garrison asks, "So, what is it that Davis is protecting taxpayers from? The legislation—which would have to be approved by voters in a general election—would change Article III of the Missouri Constitution to make it unlawful for the state to use funds for abortions (other than those that would save the life of the mother), abortion services, human cloning and 'prohibited human research'" Garrison writes.
"Prohibited human research, as described in the legislation, is anything that takes organs, tissues or cellular material of any living or dead child," he writes. "Davis defines a 'child' as a 'human being recognized as a minor pursuant to the laws of this state, including if in vivo, an unborn child, and if in vitro, a human being at any of the stages of biological development of an unborn child from conception or inception onward.'
"It's the 'in vitro' clause that scares stem-cell researchers," Garrison says. "Under Davis' definition, a 'child' would include fertilized eggs from a fertility clinic that have never been implanted as well as embryos created with an unfertilized egg through other means. In other words, the bill would seriously hamper stem cell research in Missouri."
Jim Goodwin, spokesman for Missouri Coalition for Life Saving Cures, sent an e-mail warning that Davis' proposed legislation is "essentially the same" ballot initiative that Missouri Roundtable for Life submitted to the Secretary of State's Office earlier this year.
"Roundtable withdrew the ballot initiative last month, even though in October, the group was given the green-light to begin collecting signatures," Goodwin said in the e-mail. "Rep. Davis is now using HJR 49 to push the ballot proposal."
In October, State Auditor Susan Montee's office released a report on the economic impact of the ballot initiative proposed by Missouri Roundtable.
"This proposal could have a significant negative fiscal impact on state and local governmental entities by prohibiting the use of public funds for certain research activities," the report states. "Federal grants to state governmental entities for research and medical assistance programs may be in jeopardy. The total costs to state and local governmental entities are unknown."
Kenneth C. Aldrich, chairman of the International Stem Cell Corp., based in Oceanside, Calif., says Davis' bill "would have no measurable affect on International Stem Cell," which produces and sells specialized cells and growth media worldwide for therapeutic research. "In general, attempts to ban stem cell research usually result from either an opposition to the use of human embryos (the source of what are called "embryonic stem cells") or from a misguided fear that stem cell research will result in the cloning of humans for body parts or some other purpose."
No serious effort is being made anywhere in the U.S. to use stem cells for that purpose, Aldrich says, adding that all a total ban on stem cell research does is drive quality scientists out of the state, usually taking jobs with them, and assures the next major scientific breakthrough occurs somewhere else in the world.
"However, we understand the religious concerns that cause some people to be concerned about using human embryos to create embryonic stem cells," Aldrich says. "Whether one agrees or disagrees, that opposition is based on serious religious concerns."
International Stem Cell has created an alternative that appears to have all the benefits of embryonic stem cells—but does not require the use of a fertilized human embryo, he says.
"It's called Parthenogenesis and results in stem cell lines that can become any cell in the human body, but are created from an unfertilized egg, using a process that can neither create nor destroy a viable human embryo or fetus," Aldrich says. "Our lines also have the unique ability to reduce or eliminate the need for immune suppression drugs for hundreds of millions of potential patients who might otherwise not be able to use cell based therapy."