State Senate endorses embryonic stem cell research

The Massachusetts Senate has approved an economic stimulus package that, if left unchanged, would endorse cloning for the purpose of embryonic stem cell research.

On Nov. 5 the Senate voted 37-3 to keep language endorsing embryonic stem cell research — including research on stem cells derived from cloned human embryos — in the $115 million economic stimulus package unveiled by Senate President Robert Travaglini.

During the brief debate before the Nov. 5 vote, Sen. Marian Walsh, D-Boston, argued that language endorsing embryonic stem cell research should be removed saying, “Basically we are talking about using human life as research material. That concerns us. We have stem cell research happening everyday right now. It is not unlawful but we have not codified it in statute.”

Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, also spoke out against the cloning and stem cell language in the bill, telling the senators that an analysis by Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, called it, “the most disturbing and incoherent bill he has ever seen.”

Hedlund also said Doerflinger warned that Massachusetts “would become a laughingstock if we [the Senate] pass this mess.”

A strongly worded analysis of the issue released by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC) called the vote “the result of influence, deception, and confusion.”

"What happened in the Senate? Why did a controversial endorsement of destructive research on human beings sail through with no real discussion or debate, backed even by senators who relied on pro-life support to get in office?" the analysis declared. "The language [of the bill] was deceptive, which led to confusion."

As result, the MCC said, some senators apparently voted on the bill without fully understanding its language or implications. According to the MCC analysis, some senators even “denied ... that the bill had anything to do with approving cloning or the destruction of human life.”

In one apparent contradiction, the legislation states that “human procreative cloning is hereby prohibited,” yet elsewhere endorses all “research and clinical applications involving somatic cell nuclear transplantation.” The term “somatic cell nuclear transplantation” is simply a description of the scientific process used to create cloned embryos.

Another section of the amendment asserts that “an embryo donated to medicine shall not be transferred to a uterus” and makes any violation of that statute punishable by a jail sentence of up to 2-and-a-half years or a $25 million fine.

According to the MCC, “This marks the first ever proposal in Massachusetts to criminalize the nurturing of human life by mandating its abandonment or destruction.”

Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, who voted in favor of the cloning and stem cell research, told the Senate, “We are the research capital of the world and yet we are going to cringe and move away from research? The hope of the future is genetic research and this is what genetic research is all about. This is also an economic issue. That’s why it’s in this bill.”

Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, echoed the sentiment saying, “Other states are fighting for this research. The biotech community says they will move to states that offer them legislation. This is the industry that everyone wants to encourage.”

However, John O’Connor, economics professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, believes that the biotechnology industry would continue to thrive in Massachusetts without legislation actively encouraging cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

"I don't think too many companies would get up and leave even if we went so far as to put a ban on human cloning in place," he said. "There aren't many other states that have been willing to pass similar measures [supporting cloning]."

A look at states that have taken the step of banning human cloning seems to confirm O’Connor’s assertion. Michigan, which in 1998 became the first state to ban human cloning for research purposes, has the fastest growing life sciences industry in the nation.

Similarly, Pennsylvania — which bans human cloning of all kinds — ranks third in the nation in biotechnology employment.

"The whole issue is really not economic, it's moral. Parkinson's disease is a terrible disease. The pope has it, and yet he's not advocating embryonic stem cell research," O'Connor said.

In a Nov. 10 telephone interview with The Pilot, Walsh described her motives for opposing the stem cell language in the stimulus package.

"It's a business decision, but it raises too many ethical concerns. Human embryonic stem cell research is different from the other types of stem cell research -- we actually have to use and destroy human life for the purpose of research," Walsh said.

"We in Massachusetts have stem cell research now. It's lawful. It's not banned." However, she explained that, while promising research already is being conducted on stem cells derived from adults as well as those retrieved from umbilical cord blood donations, "because embryonic stem cells reproduce more rapidly," there is a push to utilize embryonic stem cells for research.

"The Church isn't anti-stem cell research, it is just opposed to the taking of human life for any purpose -- in this case for the purpose of research," Walsh pointed out.

The bill in its current form must now go before the joint House-Senate conference committee, which was appointed on Nov 10. If passed, it will then go before Governor Mitt Romney, who has already indicated he is in favor of the package.