Narrow Win for Stem Cell Research

Tie vote by Nebraska Board of Regents blocks push to apply Bush-era restrictions. Universities are relieved.
November 23, 2009

A tie vote of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents Friday defeated -- for now -- a campaign to impose new limits on stem cell research at the system.

The outcome of the vote was in doubt until it took place, and the research only escaped the limits because of a change of heart by a regent who had been backed in his election campaign by anti-abortion groups. (Nebraska is among the minority of states where regents are elected in popular elections.) With that reversal, the vote was 4-4, and measures are considered defeated if they don't receive a majority.

Faculty groups and administrators at the university had strongly urged the board to reject the limits, which would have been based on those set by President George W. Bush and which were faulted by scientists for blocking vital research. Many academics in the state who don't do research with stem cells said that they feared a vote to impose the Bush-era limits would have scared off faculty talent, and would have led some top researchers to look for jobs elsewhere.

The proposed restrictions "would have limited our ability to save lives and improve lives and would have had a negative impact on the university's ability to recruit and retain faculty," said J.B. Milliken, president of the university system, in an interview after the board vote.

Milliken said that the vote will allow important research to proceed, but he acknowledged that anti-abortion groups will likely continue to campaign for limits, and may raise the issue in future regent elections. "It could certainly be reopened, and I expect that there will be people who will try to reopen it," he said.

The vote "isn't going to change a lot of people's minds," he said. "It's going to be incumbent on those who support this research activity to inform voters in Nebraska about the benefits of this kind of research," he said.

Jim McClurg, the regent whose vote enabled stem cell research to survive, said at the meeting that he remained anti-abortion but was swayed in part because of a law passed last year in the state that bars the use of state facilities to create or destroy embryos used for research.

Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, told The Lincoln Journal Star that McClurg's vote was "unfortunate," and that politicians who have been elected with the support of her group and then taken positions that the group opposes have lost support in subsequent elections. She said that McClurg has lost "a huge base of support."


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