July 11, 2006

Jim Fossett on States & Bioethics: Wisconsin

A recent piece in the Washington Post by David Broder, on the Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign illustrates both the continued importance of states for the immediate future of stem cell research in this country and the differences between the politics of embryonic stem cell research in state campaigns and national ones. As Broder describes, Governor Jim Doyle is running very hard on a platform which stresses the potential economic development benefits of stem cell research. The state, the University of Wisconsin’s alumni foundation (which holds important stem cell related patents) and private companies have already spent lots of money on building facilities and recruiting scientists, and Doyle wants to spend more. Doyle’s Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Mark Green, has supported the Bush Administration’s policy of limiting federal funding to pre-existing stem cell lines. Doyle has accused Green of being anti-science and opposed to progress.

As a political issue, stem cell research has divided the Republican Party in many states between pro-business elements interested in improving state economies and religious conservatives opposed to stem cell research on moral grounds. Broder’s article, however, illustrates some of the political problems stem cell research may pose for Democrats. Doyle’s support for stem cell research is part of his posture as a pro-business moderate. Even in a state with a strong progressive tradition such as Wisconsin, however, stem cell research isn’t emerging as a issue around which Democrats can easily rally. Doyle’s position has failed to gain much traction among traditional Democratic constituencies, such as teachers’ unions, minorities, and liberals, many of whom have priorities other than economic development and object to state subsidies for private businesses. The coalition supporting stem cell research in Wisconsin, as in most states, is largely composed of private companies interested in stem cells as a potential line of business, other pro-business groups, disease advocates, and medical schools and other research facilities interested in maintaining or expanding a stem cell research program. While this coalition carries greater weight in many state capitals than in Washington, it doesn’t fit comfortably with either party’s electoral “base”.

There are other issues in the Wisconsin campaign, and it would probably be a mistake to read the election’s outcome as a referendum on stem cell research. It should provide useful clues, however, to how stem cell research is likely to fare in the political process in the vast majority of states where California-style initiatives and referenda are not seriously used.
- Jim Fossett

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