March 25, 2009
While the Obama administration has loosened federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, key members of the Legislature want to tighten controls at the state level.
The Senate Finance Committee on Monday quietly inserted language into the proposed Texas budget to bar state funds from paying for the research. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research said Tuesday that senators crafted the provision so broadly that it could also slow, or end, research that happens in Texas but is not funded by state dollars.
The language “would effectively bar some of Texas’ top researchers from the state’s universities and laboratories,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said the budget language that he offered is not intended to, as many advocates fear, bar embryonic stem cell research in all facilities owned or run by the state. But he doesn’t hate that idea — in fact, he and two other senators have filed a separate bill that would enact that broader ban.
Controversy surrounds the research because it involves the destruction of human embryos, and it is opposed by many who also oppose abortion.
Ogden said he wanted to “make an unambiguous statement” to Texas researchers who may be considering taking advantage of the federal changes. The budget has always been silent on embryonic stem cell research, and he wanted to be clear that no money from the state budget may be used for that purpose, he said.
“It’s sort of like a stop sign,” Ogden said. “I don’t know if anyone’s going to try to run it or not.”
Ogden said he does not know of any state money that is now used for embryonic stem cell research. Some facilities that receive state dollars pay for such research with other funds, such as federal grants. Until the recent policy change by President Barack Obama, federally funded scientists were allowed to work with stem cell lines that had been created before President George W. Bush imposed new limits in 2001.
The budget language says that “no funds appropriated under this act shall be used in conjunction with or to support research which involves the destruction of a human embryo.”
Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, said he supports the budget provision.
“I don’t think that state dollars or research institutions funded by our taxpayer dollars ought to be used for research that involves the destruction of human embryos,” Pojman said.
Texas law appears to already ban researchers from creating embryonic stem cell lines — but it does not ban them from doing embryonic stem cell research using lines created outside of Texas, University of Texas law professor John Robertson said.
Ogden’s budget proposal could change that, said Robertson, who specializes in bioethics. He said that although a narrow interpretation of the measure would prohibit state money from being used to destroy a human embryo, a broader interpretation would make it illegal for researchers at state-funded facilities to do research on embryonic stem cells.
“It means that our world-class researchers, top-notch state health facilities won’t be able to do embryonic stem cell research with (federal) grants, under the broad interpretation” of the measure, Robertson said. “That may not be (Ogden’s) intent, but the language … could be so interpreted.”
Researchers in several labs at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston work on human embryonic stem cells using federal funds, said Margaret Goodell, director of the college’s Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Center.
“The research that we’re doing is not covered with Texas funds,” Goodell said. “On the other hand, the funding bodies can have very complicated formulas for determining whether state funds went into it.”
Colleges might have to go to great lengths — and costs — to show that there is no connection between the research and state dollars, such as building separate facilities, Goodell said. In the long term, she said, such a ban could make it tough to recruit top researchers to Texas.
The Senate Finance Committee inserted the language into its proposed budget with a 6-5 vote Monday, shortly after Ogden said, “Members, we’ve been discussing this privately.”
The Finance Committee is expected to vote on the budget next week, sending it to the full Senate for consideration. House budget negotiators would also have to sign on before the language made it into the final state budget.
“This provision must be removed from the budget, and there will be opportunities to do so in coming months,” said Watson, who is not a member of the Finance Committee.
Meanwhile, Ogden said he plans to ask the finance panel to consider his proposal to ban embryonic stem cell research in facilities owned or run by the state.
“It’s going to be hard to pass,” Ogden said, “but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.”