Embryonic stem cell research divides states

University of Michigan stem cell scientist Sean Morrison recently got a telephone call from a woman offering to donate her leftover embryos from a fertilization procedure for his studies on Parkinson’s disease. What she didn’t know was that Michigan law prohibits research on human embryos. Morrison suggested that the woman contact a lab in another state.

Nearby in Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is promoting embryonic stem cell research in an effort to lure scientists and investors, in some cases from neighboring states. In 2005, Blagojevich sent a letter urging Missouri’s top scientists to move to Illinois rather than work under a cloud created by Missouri legislators’ ultimately unsuccessful efforts to ban research on human embryos.

“The lack of federal leadership leaves a vacuum that states are trying to fill on a very piecemeal basis,” said Michigan state Rep. Andy Meisner (D). He is trying for the third year in a row to amend 1978 and 1998 Michigan statutes so that the nascent research can go forward in the job-hungry state’s acclaimed medical research institutions.

Some religious leaders and social conservatives see things differently. Instead of seeking cures for chronic and debilitating diseases by pursuing research that destroys human embryos, they maintain scientists should conduct equally promising research such as non-controversial adult stem-cell studies.

Lending currency to their arguments, a medical journal recently reported that mouse skin cells had been coaxed into behaving like embryonic stem cells and human skin cells may have the same potential.

But scientists argue adult stem cell research and other alternatives are no substitute for embryonic studies. They are eager to experiment with human embryonic stem cells because the undifferentiated cells have the capacity to develop into any organ tissue in the body, a trait called pluripotent.

“This fixation on embryo destruction as the necessary path to medical progress has in fact slowed progress,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

President Bush’s decision Wednesday (June 20) to again veto legislation that would allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research puts the issue squarely in states’ hands.

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical. And it is not the only option before us. We’re already seeing remarkable advances in science and therapeutic uses of stem cells drawn from adults and children and the blood from umbilical cords with no harm to the donor,” Bush said.

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