State politics and the stem cell policy environment in the United States

Author: Nick Dragojlovic, 02/20/13

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The regenerative medicine community greeted last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the legality of the Obama Administration’s stem cell policy with relief. The court found that federal funding of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is consistent with existing statutes, such as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. The principal implication of this ruling is that federal funding for hESC research is probably safe until at least January 2017, when the next president takes office.

The broad powers of state governments in the United States, however, have allowed the political struggle over hESCs to play out at the state level in a way that would be difficult in Canada and that is not directly impacted by the Obama Administration’s policies or by the recent Supreme Court decision. In fact, as a recent study shows, policy differences across states are wide enough to have influenced stem cell scientists’ decisions on where to pursue their research. So what’s been going on at the state level? And what might the future hold?

The most well known state-level initiative on stem cell research is the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was created by Proposition 71, a 2004 ballot initiative that passed with 59% of the vote and authorized $3 billion in state funding to create CIRM and issue grants to stem cell researchers in the state. While Proposition 71 is the most salient (and, ultimately, consequential) example of direct citizen involvement in stem cell policymaking in the United States, its passage triggered a series of efforts by advocates and opponents of hESC research to use the direct democracy provisions available in 24 U.S. states to implement their preferred policies. As the table below (which draws on BallotPedia’s database) shows, there have been at least 10 other attempts to put stem cell policy to a vote. Ultimately, the pro-stem cell initiatives have been much more successful, with a 50% success rate, while none of the restrictive measures have made the ballot.

List of U.S. Ballot Measures on Stem Cell Policy

Efforts to use direct democracy in the effort to influence stem cell policy seem likely to continue, and are part of a trend in which an increasing number of biotechnology-related policies – the labeling of genetically modified food, for example, or the 2007 referendum on the appropriation of $3 billion to create the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas – are being put to the ballot. As Rothmayr and Varone argue, this has both opened up the policymaking process to anti-biotechnology activists and provided advocates with a new mechanism through which to secure public funding.

State legislatures have also been active in regulating stem cell policy. In a 2009 report, the Baker Institute for Public Policy found that 33 of 50 states had legislation in place that impacted stem cell research, of which 14 specifically prohibited therapeutic cloning and 8 were classified as having restrictive policies that “mostly ban embryonic stem cell research.” So with federal funding for hESC research safe for the moment, is the political battle at the state level likely to intensify?

A 2012 article by Andrew Karch suggests that this unlikely. In an analysis of all stem cell-related bills introduced in state legislatures between 1999 and 2008, he found that the frequency with which this type of bill was introduced was strongly influenced by the national political agenda. When the national debate on stem cell research increased in salience (as when President Bush addressed the nation regarding his stem cell policy in 2001 or during the debate on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005), legislative activity at the state level increased as well. In other words, the federal political scene tended to set the agenda at lower levels of government. To the extent that restrictions on hESC funding at the federal level are now off the table until 2017, then, we should expect to see a lull in state-level activity on this issue.

As is often the case, however, California may be an exception. CIRM’s funding runs out in 2017, and its board is reportedly considering a second ballot initiative as one way to continue its operations, and has begun a public awareness campaign to lay the groundwork for it. A high-profile electoral campaign that focuses on the accomplishments of a publicly funded stem cell research program in the nation’s largest state could well bring stem cell policy back onto the national agenda before 2017, much as Proposition 71 served as the model for the successful ballot initiatives in Missouri and Michigan. This may be a welcome development if the looming cuts to the National Institutes of Health’s budget take effect, though a second initiative campaign’s effect on the national debate would likely depend on its outcome and would be a high-stakes affair for advocates of biomedical research funding.

Citations:
Levine A.D. (2012). State stem cell policy and the geographic preferences of scientists in a contentious emerging field, Science and Public Policy, 39 (4) 530-541. DOI:
Rothmayr Allison C. & Varone F. (2009). Direct Legislation in North America and Europe: Promoting or Restricting Biotechnology?, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 11 (4) 425-449. DOI:
Karch A. (2012). Vertical Diffusion and the Policy-Making Process: The Politics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, Political Research Quarterly, 65 (1) 48-61. DOI:

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Nick Dragojlovic is a science communication and health policy researcher interested in how public engagement with science can boost innovation in the biomedical domain. He is particularly interested in how crowdfunding can be used to finance scientific research, which he writes about at Science Menu. Nick is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia, funded by fellowships from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR). He previously completed postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Calgary and UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, and holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia.
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