States take up stem cell debate

Minnesota, Oklahoma legislators seek to criminalize some embryonic stem cell research procedures

Amy Swinderman
ST. PAUL, Minn. and OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.—As a nationaldebate rages over President Barack Obama's policy to make federal fundsavailable for stem cell research—with a handful of contentious lawsuits makingtheir way through federal courts—states are now taking up the issue, with twostate legislatures close to passing laws that will make certain human embryonicstem cell (hESC) research procedures a criminal act.
 
 
At press time, the state legislatures of Minnesota andOklahoma were both in the process of passing such legislation, spurred by thepresident's 2009 executive order to lift federal funding restrictions onembryonic stem cell research placed in August 2001 by former President GeorgeW. Bush. Several federal lawsuits are seeking to not only reverse Obama's OK ofmaking federal funds available to those engaged in hESC research, but to ban certainaspects of this type of research altogether.
 
 
Now states are exercising their rights to oppose the federalpolicy and take that opposition a step further by making certain hESC researchprocedures a criminal act.
Minnesota's "Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2011" seeks toban "human cloning," or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The bill definesa "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—fromperforming human cloning and shipping or receiving any oocyte, embryo, fetus orhuman somatic cell for the purpose of human cloning. Any person or entity foundto be in violation of these provisions would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Thebill exempts other areas of scientific research such as nuclear transfer orother cloning techniques to produce non-human molecules, DNA, embryos, tissuesor organs.
 
The bill was the brainchild of Republican Sen. MichelleFischbach, who has stated, "There is a life destroyed in cloning. We need totreat human life at all stages with dignity." But the bill has come under firefor failing to distinguish between "therapeutic cloning," which is only used togenerate a few cells, and "reproductive cloning," which might have thepotential to produce a complete embryo. Opponents of the bill argue that thistechnology is currently not being used to create a human embryo, which wouldrequire implantation into a woman's actual uterus to become a fetus. SenateRepublicans blocked an amendment that sought to make that distinction.
 
The bill has passed committee readings in both the state'sHouse of Representatives and Senate. Once passed, the new law would take effectAug. 1 and apply to crimes committed on or after that date.
 
 
In Oklahoma, the "Destructive Human Embryo Research Act" prohibitsa person from conducting on an embryo research that kills or injures theembryo. The measure also prohibits buying, selling or transferring an embryo orgamete for such research. It excludes certain procedures such as in-vitro fertilization. Like the Minnesota bill, the measuremakes any violation of the act a misdemeanor.
 
 
Opponents of Oklahoma's bill have argued that the bill maynegatively impact the state's economy. A study released in February 2011 by theGreater Oklahoma City Chamber showed that the biosciences contributed $6.7billion to the economy and generated 51,000 jobs. An amendment allowing forembryos 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 throughthe Oklahoma Senate, and its supporters are hopeful that it will easily passgiven that Republican Mary Fallin was elected governor of the state inNovember.
 
"We value life here in Oklahoma. And it is for that veryreason that I am happy to run this Americans United for Life request billbanning the destructive research on embryonic stem cells," Faught said in astatement. "While we in no way dispute the fact that the ability to treat orheal suffering persons is a great good, we also recognize that not all methodsof achieving a desired good are morally or legally justifiable."
 
In addition to these two bills, lawmakers in Michigan havetucked into a higher education funding bill measures that would require thestate's research universities to report on their stem cell activities.Specifically, they are asking these institutions to report how many humanembryos they have and how many stem-cell lines they have created using them.
The spending bill with the provision would need approvalfrom the House Appropriations Committee, the full House and then the fulllegislature before the governor could sign it into law.
 
Meanwhile, other states are beefing up their support of hESCresearch. Maryland—which ranks third behind California and New York in state-supportedfunding of stem cell research—is working toward increasing the Maryland StemCell Research Fund to $12.4 million from this year's $10.4 million. The planalso seeks to retain an $8 million biotechnology investment tax credit.
 
 
Last year, Maryland approved 42 stem cell research projectstotaling $11.7 million, including a dozen collaborations between Marylanduniversities and companies, according to Gazette.net.

Amy Swinderman

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