RIP: Stem Cells in Politics (2002-2008)

Posted by Jesse Reynolds November 5, 2008
Biopolitical Times
The stem cell research initiative in Michigan passed yesterday by a 52 to 48 margin. Like 2006's initiative in Missouri, which passed with a similar percentage, its policy impact is much less than its proponents stated. Conducting research using embryonic stem cell lines has been permitted in Michigan all along. Now the state's scientists can derive lines themselves, which was previously prohibited.

This reality plays out in two contrasting quotes. The head of University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, Sean Morrison, said of the result, "We expect in the short-term millions of new dollars of grants to come from the federal government and private foundations to support the expanded research." In contrast, business columnist Nathan Bomey says supporters "are certain to be confronted soon with the stark reality of Michigan's crumbling state budget and bleak economic situation. Sure, embryonic stem cell research is now legal, but who will fund it? Not the state."

Despite Morrison's claims, there will be no increased federal funding due to the passage of Michigan's stem cell proposal. Even when President-elect Obama removes the Bush restrictions, federal funds will be available only to work with embryonic stem cell lines, not to create new ones. Grants for the latter are restricted by the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which would be left in place by both the repeatedly-vetoed stem cell bill and Obama's platform.

But the real message from this election cycle is the end of embryonic stem cell research as a relevant political issue. It was huge in 2004, present but marginal in 2006, and seemed comatose with the 2007's failure of New Jersey's stem cell funding initiative. In this cycle, the topic made barely a peep.

Hopefully now work can proceed in concert with a level-headed conversation about the true potential of stem cell research and the real challenges posed by human reproductive and genetic biotechnologies.