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Embryonic Stem Cell Debate Bursts onto State Level

California voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to approve the largest government-funded research program on embryonic stem cells in the country, a sharp contrast to federal policy that limits the same research.

Embryonic stem cell research, which some scientists predict will lead to treatments for devastating diseases, is the focus of a divisive national debate over whether human embryos from the moment of creation through the eighth week of growth should be protected as individual lives.

California's initiative would support embryonic research with $3 billion in state bonds over 10 years. That would dwarf the $6.5 million that New Jersey, the only other state to fund embryonic stem cell research, set aside this year to recruit researchers for the state's Stem Cell Institute.

Some scientists say research on embryonic stem cells holds more promise than adult stem cells. Adult stem cells can come from the placenta and umbilical cord blood after birth, and from organs such as bone marrow and skin.

Scientists are studying whether stem cells might be able to replace cells lost or damaged by diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's and to treat spinal cord and brain injuries. Celebrities such as Nancy Reagan, Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox have championed embryonic stem cell research, an issue that also has emerged in the presidential campaign.

Current federal policy limits federally funded research to embryonic stem cell lines created before August 2001. The United States prohibits federal funding of any kind of embryo cloning.

State laws on embryonic stem cell research vary widely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states restrict or prohibit research on an aborted embryo. South Dakota strictly forbids embryonic stem cell research. Louisiana is the only state to ban research on stem cells from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

In other states:

  • Illinois and Michigan prohibit research on live embryos. 
  • Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan and North Dakota prohibit research on cloned embryos.
  • California, Missouri, New Jersey and Rhode Island have human cloning laws that ban cloning for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy, but allow cloning for research. 
  • Nebraska bans the use of state funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Thirty states have considered 78 bills relating to stem cells this year, according to NCSL's online database of genetics legislation.

Alissa Johnson, senior policy specialist for NCSL, said bills that address human cloning are a continuing trend but lately more measures are tackling the issue of stem cells directly.

This year a Kansas law provided funding for stem cell research but excluded the use of cells from induced abortions. A law passed this year in South Dakota prohibits reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

California's Proposition 71 would create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine for stem cell research. The initiative was developed by a coalition that describes itself as "California families and medical experts determined to close the stem cell research funding gap." The measure prohibits the Institute's funding of human reproductive cloning, supporters say.

Supporters include groups such as the California Medical Association, American Diabetes Association, Alzheimer's Association California Council, ALS Therapy Development Foundation, Parkinson's Action Network and Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

The California Republican Party went on record Aug. 7 in opposition to Proposition 71. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) hasn't taken a position.

Other opponents include religious groups, which say embryonic stem cell research is unethical. A group called Doctors, Patients & Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility opposes the initiative, saying the measure would be a financial boon to the biotech industry that supports it.

"We strongly support stem cell research -- with narrow exceptions -- but we oppose this shameless attempt by a small group of venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies to have California taxpayers pay for their research and development costs," the group's Web site says.

Stem cells have become an issue in this year's presidential campaign, with Democratic candidate John Kerry calling for federal restrictions to be lifted. President George Bush favors keeping federal limits that restrict research to embryonic stem cell lines created before August 2001.

Stem cell research raises ethical issues that pit scientific promise against beliefs about the beginnings of life. The same ethical issues discussed at the national level are made compellingly real in California's debate.

Suzanne Murray, a 36-year-old Marietta, Calif., nurse, became pregnant with an adopted embryo and said she will vote against Proposition 71.

When Murray and her husband Peter, 39, found out they were infertile, they heard about an organization called Snowflakes.org that matches embryos with biologically unrelated infertile couples who are unable to produce eggs for artificial implantation. Embryos were thawed and implanted in Murray, and today 14-month-old Mary clings to her leg. Eventually, she says, she will tell Mary "she was adopted as an embryo" and her mother contributed nothing to her creation but a warm place to grow and nutrients for nine months.

"I'm just a proud mommy like most mommies. Life starts at conception, and that's why I'm opposed to embryo research. I believe these are lives, and they should not be doing stem cell research on embryos," said Murray, who saved Mary's cord blood after birth.

But California Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), chairperson of the Health and Human Services Committee, contends that Proposition 71 could help cut the state's skyrocketing health care costs by developing life-saving treatments and cures, reducing the need for expensive, long-term care. Ortiz became interested in stem cell research when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died 34 months later.

"There's a compelling moral argument that you can't ignore the suffering and the inevitable death of persons diagnosed with these diseases that we're attempting to cure," said Ortiz, who authored a 2002 law to affirm state policy allowing embryonic stem cell research. "To suggest that the set of cells that have divided for less than seven days, or 14 days, that have never been inside a woman's body, that are sitting a freezer that will be thrown out and can be thrown out somehow are more sacred than the hours left in a child's life -- that's the moral imperative. We have the science. We can't ignore and look back."

Tags: Health