Michigan voters will decide next month whether the state will continue to have some of the most restrictive laws governing embryonic stem cell research in the country.
While federal law allows research on embryonic stem cells, federal funding is restricted to the lines that already existed when President Bush articulated the policy on August 9, 2001. Since then, the issue has been taken up by individual states, with some providing their own funding, some outlawing the research altogether, and others falling in between.
Michigan outlawed research that could destroy human embryos in 1978. Current state law allows research on stem cells derived from human embryos, but only if they already exist -- essentially, if they were created out of state. It is "so restrictive that we would put people in jail for doing research" that is legal in California, New York and other states, and that those states "actually pay people millions of dollars to do," said Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute.
The ballot initiative, Proposal 2, would not overturn the state's ban on human cloning, but it would allow the creation of new stem cell lines from embryos that were intended for fertility purposes but were not used.
The state's university systems do not make political endorsements, but researchers and science groups strongly support the initiative, which would amend Michigan's Constitution. The University of Michigan is an acknowledged leader in adult stem cell research, which is allowed under state law, and it serves as one of six "core facilities" in the country that house the pre-existing embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding.
Meanwhile, an opposition is mounting a vigorous campaign against the initiative, backed by Catholic and anti-abortion groups. Michigan Citizens Against Unrestricted Science & Experimentation (MiCAUSE) argues that the proposed amendment would effectively bar the state Legislature from regulating embryonic stem cell research in any way, including common-sense restrictions such as licensing requirements for researchers and technicians.
"It's very clear that from this constitutional amendment, it puts in our Constitution an exemption for stem cell research therapies and cures that no other sector of society -- medical, research, anything that you can think -- there's no other exemption in there that says the Legislature will never be able to deal with it," said David Doyle, MiCAUSE's spokesman.
That's an argument vigorously disputed by those who support the proposal. The language in question states that stem cell research in Michigan "must be conducted and provided in accordance with state and local laws of general applicability," such as those governing medical safety and privacy, as long as they do not "prevent, restrict, obstruct, or discourage any stem cell research or stem cell therapies and cures that are permitted by the provisions of this section" or "create disincentives for any person to engage in or otherwise associate with such research or therapies or cures."
According to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, one thing is clear: "This provides unique Constitutional protection to stem cell research." But how far it would reach would "depend on the courts."
"If passed, research on human embryos mainly would be regulated by the federal government," continues the council's report on the initiative. "This would not make Michigan unusual; many states leave it to the federal government to regulate the research. Current federal regulations are limited to funding, but the policy could change with the next president."
The charge that Proposal 2 would prevent the state legislature from regulating embryonic stem cell research "is patently false," said Chris De Witt, spokesman for Cure Michigan, which supports Proposal 2. Opponents of the measure are "misleading people by telling them that this can't be regulated. It's patently false, but that does not stop them from saying it."
"Right now we're very much constrained in what we do because we can't make our own embryonic stem cell lines," said Morrison, of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology. He acknowledged that research is permitted on previously existing stem cell lines, including those created out of state. "But most of the lines that we would like to use don't actually exist yet. Not so many lines have been made yet, and particularly the lines that would carry the specific defects ... and that we would ultimately like to use, haven't been made yet."
Michigan, Morrison continued, has one of the "highest-impact institutions in the world in the area of adult stem cell research, and we can recruit the best ... but people who focus on embryonic stem cells don't even apply here for jobs."
Doyle, of MiCAUSE, scoffs at the notion that the state's laws on embryonic stem cell research are a drag on funding and recruitment.
"The laws are the same today as when [the Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research] was founded, and both [federally funded] and privately [funded] embryonic stem cell research goes on at the University of Michigan today. So if we're so restrictive, why are we one of the largest centers in the country?"