Election 2006: No veto-proof majority on stem cell funding

Candidates favoring embryo research won, but not in large enough numbers. Missouri voted to keep the research legal.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted Nov. 27, 2006

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The November elections did not produce veto-proof congressional majorities in favor of expanded federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells, but research supporters took heart from a pair of victories in the bellwether state of Missouri.

Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, barnstormed in support of pro-research candidates. The goal was to get enough votes in Congress to overcome a potential repeat of last July when President Bush vetoed a bill to expand funding for stem cell research using embryos left from in vitro fertilization treatments.

Though Democrats won control of Congress for the first time since 1994 and promised to pursue the issue, it appears the House will fall about 30 votes shy of a veto-proof roll call, according to James Fossett, PhD, co-director of the Federalism and Bioethics Initiative at the Alden March Bioethics Institute in Albany, N.Y.

"It's the states that are going to continue to spend the money and take the initiative," Dr. Fossett said. New York Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, pledged to spend $1 billion on stem cell research, and newly re-elected Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle will push ahead with plans to spend nearly $500 million to make the state a magnet for scientists.

Sean B. Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, of which the AMA is a member, said he hopes advances can be made in Bush's last years in office. "Americans took their feelings about embryonic stem cell research to the polls," Tipton said, referring to the two-thirds support for the research found in opinion surveys.

Both sides in the stem cell debate viewed the election in Missouri, which has picked the winning presidential candidate since 1900, as a Rorschach test of the national mood. A bare majority of voters there -- 51% to 49% -- passed Amendment 2 to allow scientists to conduct any research permitted under federal law and ban human cloning for reproductive purposes. They also favored, by a similarly slim margin, pro-research Democrat Claire McCaskill over incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who voted against the vetoed bill and opposed Amendment 2.

The close vote on Amendment 2 was a surprise because pro-research forces outspent opponents by a margin of 10 to 1. Opponents said the measure would make Missouri the "Clone Me State," arguing it misled voters by claiming to ban human cloning while allowing therapeutic cloning via somatic cell nuclear transfer.

"If there had been more time to educate Missourians about what the amendment really said, it would have gone down in defeat," said Russell B. Dieterich, MD, a retired St. Charles, Mo., ob-gyn who chaired a Christian Medical & Dental Assns. task force.

William H. Danforth, MD, chancellor emeritus of St. Louis' Washington University, said opponents of the measure tried to confuse voters into thinking it would legalize reproductive cloning. "This is an issue that has to do with religious convictions and religious identity, but it's also an issue of fact," he said.

The Missouri State Medical Assn. endorsed Amendment 2 and was a member of the pro-research Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. The AMA first adopted policy in favor of embryonic stem cell research in 1999, and EVP and CEO Michael D. Maves, MD, MBA, sent a letter to the Senate last summer in support of the bill ultimately vetoed by President Bush.

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Voters speak

Nov. 7 was a good night for embryonic stem cell research supporters.

U.S. Senate races: Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia elected Democratic candidates who spoke out in favor of embryonic stem cell research. Four of these seats represent a change in position from the previous officeholder.

U.S. House races: About 20 supporters of embryonic stem cell research funding were added.

Gubernatorial races: Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New York and Wisconsin voters elected or re-elected gubernatorial candidates who have supported state funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Sources: Gail Pressberg; James Fossett, PhD

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