October 06, 2006

State Elections and Stem Cells

The latest issue of Stateline.org has an excellent round-up by Christine Vestal here on the state elections in which embryonic stem cell research has become a major issue. Two things are clear--- stem cell research is on the political agenda in a lot of states, and it’s not just an issue for blue state Democrats anymore.

As an election issue, stem cells are most visible in Missouri. There’s a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would unambiguously legalize embryonic stem cell research, and stem cells have become a major issue in the U. S. Senate race between State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) and incumbent Republican Jim Talent. While the Senate race is rated by political gurus as too close to call, the amendment is backed by a large coalition of faith, civic, patient and medical groups and commands a solid majority (60% plus) in recent polls.

Missouri’s hardly the only place stem cells are an issue, however. Incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle is running hard for re-election in Wisconsin on a platform that includes strong state support for stem cell research as a major economic development initiative. The state just announced a deal with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which controls several key patents on stem cell techniques, which would give Wisconsin-based researchers and companies free access to the material and techniques covered by the patents, and Doyle wants to spend a lot of state money to attract companies to Wisconsin. Presumptive governor of New York Eliot Spitzer (he’s ahead by 50 points in the most recent polls) has put forward a proposal to spend $1 billion in state money to support stem cell research in that state, and Democratic candidate for Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who’s also well ahead in the polls, has also supported using state funds to support this research. Incumbent Democratic governor of Michigan Jennifer Grenholm is also running for re-election on a platform that favors eliminating the state’s current restrictions on stem cell research.

Republican candidates, some in so-called “red” states, are also supporting stem cells. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Robert Ehrlich in Maryland, Jodi Rell in Connecticut, and Kerry Healey in Massachusetts are all declared stem cell supporters, as are candidates of both parties in Kentucky. There are also initiatives under way in Georgia and Kentucky to get a Missouri-style constitutional amendment on the 2008 ballot.

Elections are very rarely about just one thing, and it would be a mistake to read any of these contests (except the Missouri constitutional amendment) as referenda on embryonic stem cell research. A couple of things are clear nonetheless. Unless the November elections also deliver veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress for a revival of the stem cell bill President Bush vetoed last year, stem cell research policy in this country will continue to be set by the states, not the national government. If Doyle, Spitzer, and Patrick win their elections and are successful with their stem cell initiatives, for example, the amount of state money being spent on stem cell research is likely to expand significantly, and the rules governing that research will be the result of policies established in Madison, Albany, and Boston rather than in Washington. What does or doesn’t happen in Congress will be more or less irrelevant. Second, stem cell politics is slowly being detached from the abortion issue. Significant numbers of pro-life politicians and citizens support stem cell research, and some pro-choice groups, including womens health advocates, have proven to be less than enthusiastic about states supporting large scale stem cell research for a variety of reasons.
Jim Fossett

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