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March 7, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 Part 8

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

We're at the halfway mark in the 90-day General Assembly Session. Unlike previous years, there is no joy in Mudville.

The medical malpractice and slots debate have divided Annapolis like never before. Amazingly, it isn't even Republican versus Democrat. The Democrats are fighting over slots, as the Senate has passed a very flexible slots bill while the House has passed a very specific, inflexible version. Republicans are fighting over whether to try to highlight Democratic votes on difficult issues like the Marriage Definition Constitutional Amendment.

One of the more contentious issues of the session, the debate over cloning and stem cell research, played out last week. My committee, Health and Government Operations, heard three different versions of stem cell bills.

I thought I'd let you play legislator again. Below is the policy debate on stem cells, with the advocate and opponent arguments included.

Stem Cell Research Act of 2005

Issue: A federal executive order restricts stem cell research to the lines that currently exist under federal research grants. No federal public investment may be made in new embryos for research purposes.

There are several lines of embryonic cells that are actively being used by highly regarded research institutions. There is no restriction on the use of private investment for further research. There are also no limits on the use of adult stem cells for research.

A bill before my committee would authorize that $25 million in new spending from the Cigarette Restitution Fund (CRM) be applied to stem cell research, both embryonic and adult cells. Another bill would restrict state funding (also from the CRM) to adult stem cell research.

Progressive Ideology: In the event that any stem cell research holds out the hope of a cure for any disease of affliction, public research funds should be made available for keeping the research active. It does not make any sense to place restrictions or limitations on funding mechanisms, when the range of afflictions we're discussing include juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and similar neurological disorders.

New Jersey and California both have enacted laws recently that allow the use of state funding for embryonic stem cell research. The argument is that private investment into new medical technologies is always limited, since most private investment is tied to the potential for a return on the initial investment. In California, the legislature, supported by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has set aside $3 billion of state funding for a major embryonic and adult stem cell research effort.

Conservative Ideology: The clash of science and ethics forms the basis for the concerns of conservatives on stem cell debate. The use of embryonic stem cells requires the collection and storage of a fertilized egg. Once stored, the fertilized egg is "harvested" of its stem cells, which are then used for scientific research.

An argument can be made that since the egg must be fertilized, then the act of destroying it through the stem cell removal amounts to an abortive procedure. In addition, religious organizations see the move towards creating new cells strictly for research as justifying cloning.

A presidential executive order has outlawed cloning and using government funding for creating new fertilized eggs for the purpose of research. That same order allows the use of federal funds for research purposes into existing embryonic stem cell lines. It also allows private funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Financial Argument: There are several agencies arguing for unlimited research. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, The High Tech Council of Maryland, and the Department of Business and Economic Development all support unrestricted use of state funding in stem cell research. They claim that any legislative restrictions will make Maryland less competitive in the lucrative field of genetic research. An executive from a Montgomery County bio-tech firm stated the stakes were in the billions, with a B!

Scientific Argument: In the last 20 years, there have been no diseases or afflictions cured by stem cells. In the last 6-7 years, there have been some major breakthroughs and positive outcomes in stem cell testing, though.

Fifty-six diseases are being actively treated with stem cells. It is likely that the next five years will see even more positive and exciting news. Of these 56 diseases, only adult stem cells have been used. Not a single patient has ever been treated with embryonic stem cells, and not one disease has been cured with an embryonic stem cell. That does not mean that it will not ever happen, just that it hasn't happened yet.

OKAY, now the issue is before you! How are you going to vote? Do you allow public sector funding to be used for embryonic, adult, or no stem cell research at all? Do you agree that the religious/ethical concerns have enough merit that we need to proceed slowly, or should we press ahead seeking possible cures?

My Take: We know that adult stem cells hold the most immediate potential to reduce human suffering, we want to avoid the whole scientific ethics argument, and our public sector investment is limited. Why even engage in the embryonic stem cell debate? Let's focus our investment in adult stem cell technologies, and let's encourage our private laboratories and universities to continue this amazing journey of discovery. Private entities that see a long-term benefit in embryonic stem cell research can invest themselves, and can reap any financial reward that might result.

All of this, and we're only halfway through! Imagine the delights that await in the coming weeks! More wasted time on slot machines, discussion of domestic partnerships, firearms, witness intimidation, abortion, and tax policy! Lions and tigers and bears! Oh My!

A footnote observation: The Frederick County Delegation has been in the news lately. Specifically, a local Frederick flap drew some commentary about my colleague, Del. Patrick Hogan.

Let me offer my view, as I'm around him every day. He continues to impress members, lobbyists, and staff with his work in committee and on the floor. Flashes of his father's ability to cross party lines are evident, as he has developed a very close relationship with his chair, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D., Baltimore). He shows his mother's very impressive grasp of policy in how he can quickly shift topics in detailed discussions of policy minutiae.

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