After more than a month of watching his legislation on embryonic stem-cell research languish in the Michigan House of Representatives, state Rep. Andrew Meisner (D-Ferndale) said he is considering putting the issue before the voters in 2006. Meisner, a 1995 University alum, introduced a package of three bills that would liberalize Michigan’s current embryonic stem-cell research restrictions, which in April Nature magazine categorized as some of the nation’s most restrictive.
At a time when state leaders are repeatedly touting the importance of diversifying Michigan’s stagnant economy by expanding life-sciences research and University administrators worry about losing top scientists, Meisner’s legislation can’t even get a hearing. And Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the most visible of these state leaders paying lip service to the importance of life sciences, has not come out in support of the legislation or embryonic stem-cell research specifically — a decision Meisner said is a mistake.
Granholm’s spokeswoman, Liz Boyd, told me the governor has not had enough time to fully consider the legislation. Then she shifted blame for the inaction to Republicans: “We are dealing with the political reality of the Michigan Legislature being controlled by the Republican Party.”
Apparently, Boyd didn’t notice that in May the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to increase federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research despite White House objections and a veto threat by President Bush.
Michigan political guru Ed Sarpolus said Granholm is unlikely to support changing Michigan’s laws because she could lose Catholic and conservative voters and it “doesn’t gain her anything.” His assessment was that Meisner’s legislation isn’t going anywhere in the Legislature.
Meisner told me that if the current Legislature does not deal with the issue, he would seriously consider following the lead of California, where last year voters approved a ballot proposal that provides funding for stem-cell research in the state. Meisner said he is not sure whether a Michigan initiative would only change the law or also include funding, saying, “I think that funds would be ideal.” In addition to California, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Connecticut have all passed legislation to fund stem-cell research, and a number of other states are considering providing funding as well.
But in order to get the issue on the ballot in 2006, the same year that Granholm is up for re-election, Meisner will need to gather 254,206 valid signatures by May 31.
“I’ve had very preliminary discussions with some folks on the topic,” Meisner said. But Jason Brewer, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said “I think at this stage it’s probably talk.”
The legislation would allow Michigan scientists to derive new embryonic stem-cell lines, legalize somatic nuclear transfer (or therapeutic cloning) and increase the state’s penalty for reproductive cloning from 10 years in prison to 15, Meisner said. Somatic nuclear transfer is the process of transferring the nucleus of a patient’s body cell into an embryonic stem cell in order to treat the patient. The process is only illegal in four other states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas.
Last year, Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics conducted a poll that found substantial support for embryonic stem-cell research (73 percent) among Michigan voters. He told me that following the release of the results, Meisner began seeking support from Granholm — even space for the issue in her State of the State address — and other state leaders for changing Michigan’s laws.
Embryonic stem-cell research didn’t make it into the governor’s February address. Support for life-sciences research, though, did. In the speech, Granholm said: “We will build the best laboratories and bring and grow the best scientists and researchers in Michigan.” In the address, she also promoted a $2 billion bond proposal to reinvigorate the state’s economy, in part by increasing the size of the state’s life-sciences sector.
She didn’t mention that, in addition to not taking a stance on embryonic stem-cell research, she has sliced in half the state’s annual funding for the Life Sciences Corridor and distributed it among research programs in homeland security and advanced automotive technology.
In a message titled “Why I Support Research with Human Embryonic Stem Cells” that is posted on University health system’s website but locked to the public, Robert Kelch, the University’s executive vice president for medical affairs, points out this contradiction: “It’s inconsistent to say we have aspirations of becoming a leading state in life sciences research, and then prohibit the development of new lines of human embryonic stem cells.”
Kelch has to be nervous about the implications of the current laws for the University, with a leading stem-cell researcher, Medical School Prof. Michael Clarke, leaving the University in the fall for Stanford University.
And if you think that’s an isolated incident, you’re fooling yourself. Kathy Sue O’Shea, the head of the University’s stem-cell center, knows what the future holds if the restrictions aren’t loosened: “You bet people are gonna move.”
Kelch’s statement is right on the mark. It’s not good policy to try to make life sciences a prominent part of the state’s economy while not creating an economic and legal environment that is at least not hostile to the hottest area of life-sciences research.
Granholm, whom Michigan voters elected to lead the ailing state, is putting politics before good policy. That’s nothing new for her, but at some point, if she keeps governing with her finger to the wind, the result will make her political outlook very grim.
Pesick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.