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States take up stem cell debate
ST. PAUL, Minn. and OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.—As a national debate rages over President Barack Obama's policy to make federal funds available for stem cell research—with a handful of contentious lawsuits making their way through federal courts—states are now taking up the issue, with two state legislatures close to passing laws that will make certain human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research procedures a criminal act.
At press time, the state legislatures of Minnesota and Oklahoma were both in the process of passing such legislation, spurred by the president's 2009 executive order to lift federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research placed in August 2001 by former President George W. Bush. Several federal lawsuits are seeking to not only reverse Obama's OK of making federal funds available to those engaged in hESC research, but to ban certain aspects of this type of research altogether.
Now states are exercising their rights to oppose the federal policy and take that opposition a step further by making certain hESC research procedures a criminal act.
Minnesota's "Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2011" seeks to ban "human cloning," or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The bill defines a "somatic cell" as "a diploid cell, having a complete set of chromosomes, obtained or derived from a living or deceased human body at any stage of development." The bill disallows any person or entity—whether public or private—from performing human cloning and shipping or receiving any oocyte, embryo, fetus or human somatic cell for the purpose of human cloning. Any person or entity found to be in violation of these provisions would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The bill exempts other areas of scientific research such as nuclear transfer or other cloning techniques to produce non-human molecules, DNA, embryos, tissues or organs.
The bill was the brainchild of Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach, who has stated, "There is a life destroyed in cloning. We need to treat human life at all stages with dignity." But the bill has come under fire for failing to distinguish between "therapeutic cloning," which is only used to generate a few cells, and "reproductive cloning," which might have the potential to produce a complete embryo. Opponents of the bill argue that this technology is currently not being used to create a human embryo, which would require implantation into a woman's actual uterus to become a fetus. Senate Republicans blocked an amendment that sought to make that distinction.
The bill has passed committee readings in both the state's House of Representatives and Senate. Once passed, the new law would take effect Aug. 1 and apply to crimes committed on or after that date.
In Oklahoma, the "Destructive Human Embryo Research Act" prohibits a person from conducting on an embryo research that kills or injures the embryo. The measure also prohibits buying, selling or transferring an embryo or gamete for such research. It excludes certain procedures such as in-vitro fertilization. Like the Minnesota bill, the measure makes any violation of the act a misdemeanor.
Opponents of Oklahoma's bill have argued that the bill may negatively impact the state's economy. A study released in February 2011 by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber showed that the biosciences contributed $6.7 billion to the economy and generated 51,000 jobs. An amendment allowing for embryos that are destined to be destroyed to be used in research failed.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. George Faught, R- Muskogee, passed the House by a vote of 86-8. It's currently going through the Oklahoma Senate, and its supporters are hopeful that it will easily pass given that Republican Mary Fallin was elected governor of the state in November.
"We value life here in Oklahoma. And it is for that very reason that I am happy to run this Americans United for Life request bill banning the destructive research on embryonic stem cells," Faught said in a statement. "While we in no way dispute the fact that the ability to treat or heal suffering persons is a great good, we also recognize that not all methods of achieving a desired good are morally or legally justifiable."
In addition to these two bills, lawmakers in Michigan have tucked into a higher education funding bill measures that would require the state's research universities to report on their stem cell activities. Specifically, they are asking these institutions to report how many human embryos they have and how many stem-cell lines they have created using them.
The spending bill with the provision would need approval from the House Appropriations Committee, the full House and then the full legislature before the governor could sign it into law.
Meanwhile, other states are beefing up their support of hESC research. Maryland—which ranks third behind California and New York in state-supported funding of stem cell research—is working toward increasing the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund to $12.4 million from this year's $10.4 million. The plan also seeks to retain an $8 million biotechnology investment tax credit.
Last year, Maryland approved 42 stem cell research projects totaling $11.7 million, including a dozen collaborations between Maryland universities and companies, according to Gazette.net.