Though University must step lightly, Coleman voices personal support for stem cell proposal

Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 13, 2008

University officials must tread lightly when discussing their positions on political issues for fear of jeopardizing the University's tax-exempt status, but in an interview yesterday, University President Mary Sue Coleman made it clear where she stands on Proposal 2.

Coleman voiced passionate support for the ballot initiative, slated to go before Michigan voters next month, which would lift the state's restrictions on stem cell research using human embryos. She said a lift on the state's restrictions barring embryonic stem cell research would boost Michigan's economy and help the state recruit the best scientists to its universities.

State law currently prohibits any research that damages or destroys a human embryo, and these limits make it impossible for Michigan scientists to create new embryonic stem cell lines. A repeal of this ban would allow researchers to use otherwise discarded embryos for research purposes.

Coleman, who noted that she was expressing her personal opinion and not an official University position, said she is "very much in favor of Proposal 2" because she believes "passionately in the promise of embryonic stem cells." She called the proposal both "pro-life" and "life-affirming," adding that all the research would be "carefully regulated" and "highly ethical."

"What we're talking about is giving people the opportunity to donate unused embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway, so it's not that...something else would happen to these that would create life," she said. "To me, that's a very, very important distinction."

She said the proposal could make the state and University less competitive because 46 other states allow the type of stem cell research included in Prop. 2.

"I think it's going to be a huge economic disadvantage for us if our scientists' hands are tied or if new companies couldn't develop," she said. "I worry also for our continued retention and recruitment of the best scientists because all people in life sciences believe that stem cell research from embryonic all the way through adult, in its every facet, is going to be one of the great stories of the 21st century."

Coleman, who spent 19 years as a member of the biochemistry faculty at the University of Kentucky, compared the possibility of advances in embryonic stem cell research in the next century to the medical advancements reached from breakthroughs in recombinant DNA in the last century. She called those "the great story of the 20th century."

Recombinant DNA is the process by which two or more different strands of DNA are combined to create a new strand of DNA. Scientists have used this process to amplify or isolate certain genes to create new vaccines or new treatments for various diseases.

She discussed how recombinant DNA research allowed scientists to sequence the entire human genome and transform the nation's court system through the forensic science of DNA fingerprinting.

"It happened all in my lifetime — it was a miracle," she said. "And there will be the same kind of miracles (with stem cell research) and we can't envision them today. That's why this is so important."

Coleman's husband, Kenneth, has donated $5,000 to Cure Michigan, an organization that supports Prop. 2. Their son and daughter-in-law have also made contributions of $5,000 each.

In Monday's interview, Coleman said she had personally donated in support of Prop. 2, but a review of several online donor databases, including the Secretary of State's website for campaign finance disclosures, did not show her in the donor rolls.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said, "We should take her at her word for it," when asked about Coleman's absence from the donor rolls last night.

Coleman said she doesn't usually endorse candidates or proposals, but considered the stem cell proposal a particularly important issue.

"I'm doing this as an individual, you know, because I think it's the right thing for the state," she said.

Coleman said the ballot initiative transcends partisan politics.

"I work across the political spectrum and in fact the stem cell issue isn't a partisan issue," she said, citing the fact that both presidential candidates support stem cell research. "You know, for me, this isn't about partisanship, this is about being able to do the best science with the best tools."

Leading up to the vote in November, the University would continue an ongoing educational effort so voters can "understand what embryonic stem cell is and what it isn't," Coleman said.