A Michigan group lobbying for the lifting of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research received some unexpected publicity earlier this week when philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman – after whom the University’s college of architecture and urban planning is named – doubled its annual budget with a $1.4 million donation. The Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures – comprised of doctors, lawyers, biologists and politicians from around the state – attempts to educate Michigan residents on the potential of embryonic stem cell research and the harsh legislative restrictions researchers currently face in Michigan. The group’s aims are commendable, but change on this issue should not come through a ballot initiative, as has recently been proposed, but instead through legislative action by our elected officials.

Despite the potential for further scientific breakthroughs at universities throughout the state, Michigan remains one of the most stringent states in the country with respect to its stem cell laws. State law forbids harvesting embryonic stem cells through a somatic cell nuclear transfer (which allows for the creation of tissues that match a patient’s body) and deriving new embryonic stem cell lines (which come from embryos that would otherwise be discarded).

Having restrictive and confusing laws on stem cell research has severely disadvantaged the state. Researchers lose out on federal funding and are unable to use state or private funding to derive embryonic stem cell lines. This results in researchers either having to pair with scientists out of the state in projects or to simply move their work to states more friendly toward their research. As the Citizens for Stem Cell Research say, the ethical boundaries of the state’s current law are unclear and need modification.

Since research on embryonic stem cells began in 1998, the possibility for significant advances in medical care and disease prevention has opened up. Among the potential use of stem cells is the replacement of damaged tissue or cells, the prevention of birth defects and cancer and the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. These advances, however, will be made at places other than the state and University of Michigan if the restrictive laws are not reformed.

The efforts to lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are noble. Grassroots organizations are necessary in a state that seems more focused on making cuts to programs than making progressive reform. However, the Stem Cell Research Ballot Question Committee, formed at the start of this month, is currently exploring ways to get the issue on the 2008 ballot. While this committee is advocating for what is right, a ballot initiative should be the last option in working for this change.

Ballot initiatives have a tendency to force voters to make uninformed decisions – as shown by Proposal 2 in 2006, which banned affirmative action. We have a representative democracy for a reason. Lawmakers are the best equipped to gather complete information and make informed decisions. They just need to make sure that they are acting in the best interests of the people of the state of Michigan. The health and economic benefits that a lifting of restrictions on embryonic stem cell research would bring makes this a no-brainer. If lobbying current representatives for changes to stem cell research laws is unsuccessful, it is our duty to elect different representatives in the next election.

As home to major research universities, there is no reason for Michigan to remain at the low end of stem cell research because of a law passed way back in 1978. For the future of the state and for the future of science, Michigan lawmakers must update their views and votes on embryonic stem cell research.

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