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The War We Dare Not Lose: Attacks on Stem Cell Research

03/09/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Logically, the assault on stem cell research should long since be over. Not only do we have a President who supports it, but our country is united on the issue.

Recent polls show a huge 72% support for embryonic stem cell research, including a majority of Republican voters (58%), Democrats (82%) and Independents (73%)... "Only 12% of the public oppose using stem cells for biomedical research.."

And yet, here are five federal attacks on the research, all since 2008.

1. H.R.110: Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2009 (Fortenberry, R-NE) -- would make an advanced form of stem cell research (nuclear transfer) a federal crime;

2. S. 99: Ethical Stem Cell Research Tax Credit Act of 2009 (Vitter, R-LA) -- stacks the deck by establishing tax credits for adult stem cell research, while prohibiting it for embryonic;

3. H.R.227: Sanctity of Human Life Act (Brown, R-GA) -- a "personhood" bill, giving full rights of citizenship to every microscopic blastocyst, including about to be thrown away;

4. H.R.877: Patients First Act of 2009 (Forbes, R-VA) -- prioritizes stem cell research funding permanently in favor of adult stem cells, and against embryonic;

5. H.R. 1654: Cures Can Be Found Act of 2009 (Paul, R-TX) -- amends the Internal Revenue Code itself, tax breaks for adult stem cell research, but not embryonic.

Notice the letter R after each of the sponsors' names? Each of these anti-research bills was sponsored by a Republican.

Notice the titles of the bills? None are labeled anti-stem cell research. Politicians can read polls too. They do not want the blame for obstructing cure. So they put some nicey-nice title on their anti-research bills.

But their intent is clear. Buried in the 2008 Republican Presidential platform is a ban on all embryonic stem cell research, public and private. The Republican "big tent" of today has shrunk to a pup tent, no room for scientific freedom.

Even the lawsuit to shut down America's right to fund the research, Sherley v. Sebelius, is based on a GOP regulation, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Never once debated on the floor of Congress, this was simply imposed on America in 1995, before human embryonic stem cell research even began. Today, it is used as an excuse to attack stem cell research.

In the states, too, the wave of ideological assaults continues.

Take for example the genuinely bizarre "personhood" laws.

Imagine providing legal protection to sperm and eggs, giving microscopic blastocysts the right to a lawyer, dots in a dish of salt water, now with standing equal to a full-grown human, in a court of law.

They are deadly serious.

Offered as a way to criminalize abortion ("If personhood is established, the...fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed..." -- Justice Harry Blackmun, in the Roe v. Wade decision), personhood laws would also ban "the pill" and various forms of birth control, also the In Vitro Fertility method of assisted childbearing-- and the field of embryonic stem cell research.

Fortunately, the more people study personhood laws, the more they shake their heads in disbelief. The first and most famous personhood bill, in Colorado, was offered to voters twice, who rejected it nearly three to one.

Even many anti-abortion groups oppose personhood laws: groups like the Eagle Forum, National Right to Life, Americans United for Life, and the Catholic Church.

Still, Personhood initiatives are endorsed by many Republican leaders, including Mike Huckabee, currently a front-runner for President in 2012.

Below are twenty states and a sampling of the bills that assault our hopes for cure.

1. Arizona: SB 1307 and HB 265 (2010) "A person shall not... engage in....nontherapeutic research that....results in injury, death,or destruction of an in vitro human embryo."

2. Alabama: Personhood Bill 2010: 1) Alabama (SB335) - Person, definition of for Code construction includes human being from moment of fertilization (Sponsor: Senator Hank Erwin)

3. California: Human Life Amendment 2010: did not gather enough signatures to get on the ballot -- but it did receive backing from the California Republican Assembly.

4. Colorado: Personhood law offered again in 2010.This was a copy of the original personhood bill, with slightly varying language, "beginning of biological development" instead of "fertilization". Fortunately, the more people studied it, the more they shook their heads in disbelief; the initiative was crushingly defeated: 70.5% to 29.5%.

5. Florida: Personhood Amendment 2009. Additionally, an attempt was made to ban state funding for embryonic stem cell research was inserted into the budget--happily, it was blocked (with a line-item-veto) by then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist.

6. Georgia: HB 1--the ultimate anti-woman anti-science bill, would "subject women who have miscarriages there to criminal investigation" on possible "prenatal murder". This is an example of a Personhood-influenced bill. Colorado Independent, John Tomasic 2.25.2011 A previous and very similar bill was the "Ethical Treatment of Human Embryos Act" 2009--"GA May Restrict Stem Cell Research", AP march 9, 2009

ALSO: Feb 15,2011-- Georgia's Senate just filed a new state constitutional amendment. (HR 5) the Paramount right to life; - Georgia Personhood Constitutional Amendment.

7. Iowa: 2011 "(New Governor)Terry Branstad said he wants Iowa to reinstate a 2002 state law that limited the use of embryonic stem cell research..."
---Jason Clayworth, "Iowa Opens new debate over use of stem cells", Des Moines Register, Jan 16, 2011,.

ALSO: "Personhood bill passes Iowa House subcommittee, Feb. 14, 2011, Iowa Independent. House File 153, personhood "from moment of conception". 29 sponsors, all Republican.

8. Maryland: House Bill 925, Personhood Amendment(2009)

9. Michigan: a six-pack of hyper-regulation laws, (SB 647-652), was apparently designed to make embryonic stem cell research unbelievably complicated, and with jail time for errors. Fortunately, while the bills passed in the Senate, they failed in the House.

ALSO: There was an attempt to revoke Proposal 2, the hotly debated (and successful) stem cell freedom initiative.

10. Mississippi: Sen. Roger Wicker supports a Personhood bill, "Life at Conception Act", to be voted on in November. This is the same Roger Wicker who co-sponsored the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, that never-debated archaic regulation, put into law before embryonic stem cell research even began -- and the basis of the lawsuit against America's right to fund embryonic stem cell research (Sherley vs. Sebelius, ongoing).

ALSO: The Mississippi House passed a law "forbidding The University of Mississippi to use state funds for research that would destroy human embryos".

11. Missouri: unsuccessful attempt to revoke Amendment 2, also Personhood attempt 2010.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Despite passage of a Constitutional Amendment to protect the research, Missouri has been under continual assault from the religious right: 33 separate attacks, (most organized by the Missouri Round Table for Life, whose then leader, Ed Martin, "...told an audience of Round Table supporters that a main purpose of their many legal actions, "to be candid, is nuisance." Of one of the groups lawsuits, Judge Patricia Joyce said: "Plaintiffs' arguments... fail as a matter of law, are without merit, and rise to the level of being frivolous."

12. Montana: Personhood attempt 2010, previous attempt (2008) CI-100 failed to make ballot. Montana (SB 406) - Montana Personhood Amendment; (probably dead)
Constitutionally define person (Sponsor: Senator Daniel McGee)

13. Nebraska: 2009, effort to prevent embryonic stem cell research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. This happened after what appears to be a broken promise by the religious right. The 2008, researchers accepted the restrictions of LB 606, in exchange for the pledge of no new interference by right to life groups -- who then immediately tried to put pressure of U of N, the only place in state where hESCr could go on. Fortunately, (and despite tremendous pressure) an 8-8 regents vote prevented the ban.

14. New Jersey: 2010, bills prohibiting public funds for stem cell research (A170 and S335) were introduced.

This is short-sighted in a state whose economy is so strongly built on medical research.

ALSO: Despite supposedly being against big government, Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll's Assembly bill No.1383 would insert state government into IVF family planning to an astonishing degree: "A human embryo which has not been implanted two years from the date of its creation...shall become a ward of the State..." !

15. North Dakota: Defense of Human Life Act, HB 1450, passed N. D. House, 68-25, Feb 11, 2010. (a previous measure HB 1572 by same author, State Rep Dan Ruby, was defeated in Senate in 2009)

16. Oklahoma: HB 1442, Destructive Human Embryo Research Act, (Faught R-Muskogee) Feb 22, passed first committee, now goes to floor of House.. (Called "criminal misdemeanor" in PBS article. Previous attempt (2009) HB 1326 passed BOTH HOUSE AND SENATE before veto by Gov. Brad Henry.

ALSO--HB 1571 appears similar.

17. South Carolina: S 450 (2009) "Life Beginning at Conception Act", in Judiciary committee now.

Texas has been attacked by a multitude of GOP anti-science bills: a few called "damaging" by Texans for the Advancement of Medical Research include: SB 1600, HB 58, HB 1358, SB 1, SB 98, SB 174, SB 629, SB 641,SB 655, and SB 1033.

19. Virginia: Personhood law: "Right to Life Bill 2010", HB 1639 "Human beings, preborn; constitutional right to enjoyment of life from moment of fertilization."

Also: Governor Bob McDonnell (R) inserted an anti-embryonic stem cell research amendment into the budget.

20. Wisconsin: Judging by comments during his campaign, Republican Governor Scott Walker may try to drive embryonic stem cell research out of the state where it began. \

The situation is difficult, but not hopeless.

Eventually, we will prevail. The need is too great.

Literally millions of people are suffering; jobs are lost by this blockage of the biomedical industry; companies are laying off workers (or going under) for inability to afford healthcare programs; homes are foreclosed for medical debt; medical bankruptcies are at an all-time high.

And the national debt has been surpassed by the cost of chronic disease. In 2009, the cost of chronic disease ($1.65 trillion) was more than the entire national debt ($1.6 trillion) for the year.

Denying cure to our suffering loved ones is like refusing to pull them out of a burning building. Failure to defeat chronic disease condemns the incurably ill to suffer for the rest of their lives.

With an estimated 100 million Americans suffering incurable illnesses or injuries, there must come a time when cure is allowed to "go forward", as Christopher Reeve always said--and at all deliberate speed.

But when?

Dare we have victory in our lifetimes? Or will our great grandchildren look back at this time and ask: why did we let it slip away?

Failure is always possible. Negative court decisions, more ultra-conservatives in power, additional concessions to the anti-science few--cures could be put off for generations.

But that is not who we are, not as a country, nor as humanity. We can rise to the occasion.

The responsibility is ours, all who support research for cure. We must know where our leadership stands on the issue, and they must know us. Does your Representative and Senator know your name? If not, why not? Remember, if they only hear from the ideological screamers, can we blame them for not voting right?

And politicians who insist on blocking cure research? What are we to do, if one party embraces cure research -- and the other attacks it?

We are fortunate to live in the greatest country in the world, often taking for granted what other countries are fighting and dying for.

When our leaders behave irrationally, ineffectually, and uncaringly -- there is a remedy.

If being a Republican means denying scientific freedom, America will have no choice but to disavow the party, oppose the ideological Know-nothings, and go elsewhere with our votes.

Note: The opinions in this essay are my own. But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the non-political research contributions of many, including but not limited to: Karen Miner, Jacqueline Hantgan, Lisa Hughes, Bernie Siegel, Tony Mazzaschi, Brooke Ellison, Shane Smith, Joe Riggs, William Remak, Lorraine Chammah, Shawn Friedkin, and William Hoffman.