November 10, 2006

The Bioethics & Embryonic Stem Cell Election Wrap Up

Now that the dust has settled at least a little bit, it’s worth looking to see what precisely happened in the election around embryonic stem cells and other issues of bioethical interest. Bottom line—the landscape in Congress has shifted some, but not enough to get the Feds back into the game in a big way. The action around supporting embryonic stem cell research still remains with the states, some of which are likely to push large scale stem cell initiatives.

Referenda/Constitutional Amendments
South Dakota Abortion Ban (Referred Law 6)—This referenda to overturn a state law which would have outlawed almost all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother passed—the ban was overturned—by 55-45 percent, slightly ahead of the last pre-election polls. The lack of exceptions for rape and incest appears to have troubled many voters—a majority of supporters and pre-election undecideds told pollsters they might have supported the ban had it contained clearer exceptions. Ban advocates tried to claim that there were exceptions in the law, but these claims did not appear to have been persuasive.

Missouri Constitutional Amendment (Amendment 2)—This amendment, which unambiguously legalized embryonic stem cell research and somatic nuclear cell transfer (SCNT) but explicitly outlawed so-called “reproductive cloning” , passed by a narrow margin of 51-49 percent. The amendment had been favored by almost two-thirds of poll respondents early this year, had steadily lost support over the summer and fall as opponents labeled it the “clone and kill” amendment. Supporters had outspent detractors by better than 10-1, making the closeness of the final vote something of a surprise Newly elected United State Senator Claire McCaskill, a strong supporter of the amendment, ran ahead of the amendment in most areas of the state.

Congressional Elections

The Democratic take-over of the House and the apparent Democratic control of the Senate are widely being interpreted by the political gurus as a national referendum on the Iraq war, corruption, and the Bush Administration in general.The election results have shifted the balance of Congressional opinion on embryonic stem cell research, but not enough to provide a veto-proof majority in favor of expanded federal support for this research in both Houses.

There may well be a veto-proof pro-stem cell block in the Senate. The Senate vote on HR810, the stem cell bill that President Bush vetoed, was 63-37, meaning that pro-stem cell forces need 4 more votes to get the two-thirds majority necessary to override a Presidential veto. They may well have gotten them—of the six Senate elections that the Democrats won, five anti-stem cell Republicans (Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island voted for the bill) were replaced by pro-stem cell Democrats, giving pro-stem cell forces one more vote than they need to override a veto.

Things are not so clear in the House. 238 Representatives voted for HR 810, 53 votes short of the 291 needed to overturn a Presidential veto. It appears that pro-stem cell forces came up short of this number. Of the 27 seats that had been called to change party hands as of about noon yesterday, 11 Republican representatives, mostly Northeastern moderates had voted for HR810, while 16 voted against it. Stem cell advocates can pick up at most 16 votes from this set of seats. Of the eight seats that were still listed as being in play, four were held by pro-HR 810 Republicans and one by a pro-HR810 Democrat, meaning that stem cell advocates can pick up at most three votes from this group. Bottom line—stem cell advocates might have picked up 20 or so votes for another HR 810 type measure, leaving them 30+ votes short of the numbers they would need to override another Presidential veto.

It doesn’t seem likely that a new version of HR 810 in the new Democratic Congress would produce a different outcome. Stem cell advocates might be able to get a Presidential veto over-ridden in the Senate, but probably not in the House. Even if a new HR 810 were successful in expanding the stem cell lines that federal funding could be used to investigate, it might be difficult to expand federal funding for an expanded embryonic stem cell research effort—after growing substantially through the late 1990’’s and early 2000’s, NIH budgets have flattened out recently and are barely growing, if at all. Even if approved in principal, expanded financial support for embryonic stem cell research might be a hard sell. Big changes in the next two years, in short, seem unlikely.

State Elections
What seems much more likely after Tuesday’s elections is a significant uptick in the level of state and research support for embryonic stem cell research. States have been committing way more money to this research than the federal government, and Tuesday’s results seem likely to increase state support. The next two states likely to get into sponsoring stem cell research in a big way are New York and Wisconsin. New York Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer, who won election by almost 50 points, is proposing a program to spend $1 billion in state funds to support this research, and re-elected Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle has proposed major state support for stem cell research in that state. Pro-stem cell governors Ron Blagojevich in Illinois and Jody Rell in Connecticut were also re-elected by significant margins, and a number of states have pursued smaller funding initiatives. As noted by Kirk Johnson in the New York Times on November 9th, Democrats also gained over 275 seats and nine legislative chambers in state legislative elections, so the climate for such initiatives may have improved in some state capitals. While it’s important to note that not much money has been spent to date on research—for an assessment of various state programs by the Bureau of National Affairs, look here [PDF]check out their Medical Research Law and Policy Report -- this may begin to change shortly.

Even after a significant change in the balance of power in Congress, in short, embryonic stem cell research seems likely to remain very much a state issue. Look for major new initiatives from Wisconsin and New York in the upcoming legislative sessions, and smaller initiatives elsewhere.

Jim Fossett
AMBI/Rockefeller Institute
Federalism and Bioethics Initiative

View blog reactions

| More