California Governor Signs Law to Increase Embryonic-Stem-Cell Research in the State
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 September 2002]
Governor Davis gets help from Superman
By RICHARD MORGAN
Gov. Gray Davis of California signed into law on Sunday a bill that allows biomedical research conducted in the state to include work with embryonic stem cells. The move stands in stark contrast to a more restrictive federal policy, announced by President Bush in August 2001, that limits federally financed embryonic-stem-cell research to studies of cells derived from existing lines, or colonies, identified on a registry maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
The California bill's passage is expected to attract top researchers to California from states and nations that have more-restrictive policies.
Governor Davis, a Democrat, said in a teleconference with stem-cell researchers and advocates that the bill would embrace "responsible research with the power to help millions of lives."
"I am determined to keep California at the forefront of biomedical research," said the governor, who noted that he had lost his mother-in-law to Alzheimer's disease and his father-in-law to lymphoma. "This is a giant step in the right direction."
Under the policy announced by Mr. Bush last year, only certain pre-existing stem-cell lines are eligible for federal research, and all of those lines are derived from adult sources or from excess embryos from fertility clinics. (See an article from The Chronicle, August 17, 2001.) The policy was shaped in part by the arguments of those whose opposition to research using stem cells from embryos is based on religious or moral reasons. The embryos must be destroyed to obtain the cells, a step that some opponents regard as the taking of human life.
The California bill, SB 253, introduced by State Sen. Deborah Ortiz, a Democrat from Sacramento, contains far fewer restrictions and will go into effect January 1.
The legislation allows for the use of human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells, and human adult stem cells from "any source." The legislation will, however, require the consent of parents of involved embryos. It also specifically prohibits the purchase or sale of fetal tissue -- whether or not it came from a live fetus. (More information about stem cells and germ cells is available online at the NIH Web site.)
"We have a problem in this country and across the world," Ms. Ortiz said during the teleconference. "When we weigh the cost of the health-care system, of human suffering and pain ... this is the next level. We have a responsibility to do it and do it well."
The California legislation was opposed by some scientists, Roman Catholics, and anti-abortion activists in the state. In an attempt to rally opposition to the bill, the California ProLife Council proposed on its Web site that "so-called 'excess' embryos should be adopted and called by name, not exploited for research. Note how the bill euphemistically refers to the killing of the embryo as 'the derivation of ... human embryonic stem cells.'"
Since stem cells were first isolated from human embryos, in 1998, medical researchers, religious leaders, ethicists, and lawmakers have hotly debated the role that stem-cell research should play.
"The political debate has had a chilling effect on our scientists," said Christopher Reeve, the actor, who is president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a lobbying group that represents universities and other supporters of stem-cell research, and who participated in the bill-signing teleconference. Mr. Reeve mentioned as an example the case of Roger A. Pedersen, a biomedical researcher formerly at the University of California at San Francisco, who left the United States last year in order to continue his research in greater freedom at the University of Cambridge, in England. (See an article from The Chronicle, July 27, 2001.)
"The hands of NIH are tied" by the Bush administration, Mr. Reeve said. "However, it is my hope that with the leadership of California, there will be a groundswell of public support. It'll take a grass-roots movement, I think, to change federal policy." California's stem-cell law, he said, "truly reflects the will of the people."
Some speakers on the teleconference panel took a wait-and-see approach to the policy shift. Although he said that the legislation allowed for "renewed hope," Lawrence S. Goldstein, a professor of cellular-molecular medicine at the University of California at San Diego, warned, "We can't overpromise. There's a lot of hard work to be done. But this [legislation] will put California in the driver's seat."
Most of the speakers had little patience for the federal government's forays into the stem-cell fray. Participants criticized not only Mr. Bush's restrictions, but also a failed Congressional bill, S 1899, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, that would have criminalized laws like the California legislation.
"Our greatest obstacle to curing our daughter was our government," said Jerry Zucker, a film producer whose 14-year-old daughter suffers from Type 1 diabetes. "But for our government not to interfere is not enough. We need our government's support. For the first time, our government is saying, Yes, we want to do this. Yes, we want to cure your daughter and millions of others."
With the vast difference in what the federal and state governments will allow in California, Suzanne Huttner, associate vice provost for research for the University of California system, acknowledged that the legislation creates "another burden" for colleges that must now deepen the separation between research conducted with state financing and that supported by the federal government, such as NIH grants. "But it's a burden we welcome," she added, saying that the shift will be an "important boon for us that other states simply don't have."
Many members of the panel predicted a flood of stem-cell researchers into California. Governor Davis, however, denied a report in The Washington Post that he is planning to send a letter to 10,000 scientists asking them to submit research proposals to the state.
"This debate will rage back and forth in the country," the governor said. "As the country ages, however, more and more Americans will see the value stem-cell research has in enhancing the quality of life for the people they love."
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