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Stem Cells Are Back for 2008

By Justin Miller

After almost being forgotten, stem cells are back as a political issue across the country and just in time for the 2008 election season.

In Washington this week, the House is expected to send a bill to President Bush that eases restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, guaranteeing another veto on expanded research after Bush stymied a similar bill last year. In April six presidential candidates voted on the bill with Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain supporting federal money for embryo research. Sen. Sam Brownback voted no while Sen. Chris Dodd abstained. Congress lacks the votes to override a likely Bush veto, meaning that both branches have punted the issue into election year.

Out in California stem cell research received a boost from the California Supreme Court after it ended years of litigation that tied up Proposal 71, which approved $3 billion worth of bonds for stem cell research in California, including work with embryos. The proposal was approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004.

Prop 71's most important booster was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who bucked his party and went back on his word to support it. As the New Yorker reported, Schwarzenegger originally vowed to stay neutral on Prop 71. The California GOP was opposed to embryonic stem cell research and in August 2004 it leaned on Schwarzenegger to come out against the proposal. It wasn't until two weeks before Election Day that Schwarzenegger finally took a stand -- against his party and for the proposal. Schwarzenegger did the same a day after Bush vetoed stem cell legislation last year by authorizing $150 million in loans for stem cell research, including embryos.

Schwarzenegger's repeated stand against the Republican leadership on this matter and his insistence that California and its issues play a significant role in the presidential election almost insures he will keep stem cell research in the spotlight as candidates tour his state.

On the other end of the Sun Belt in Florida, the stem cell issue is rising again thanks to the state supreme court and another moderate Republican governor.

Last Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court allowed two initiatives to make their way to the ballot for November 2008: one requiring the state to support embryonic stem cell research and the other prohibiting state money for research that "involves the destruction of a live human embryo." Presidential candidates will be asked to take a position on these initiatives, but they'll likely say they won't take a position on initiatives that must gather enough signatures (and have them approved) to gain ballot access. Still, the issue will be on the minds of Florida voters.

It will also be on the mind of Gov. Charlie Crist, who supported embryonic stem-cell research during his campaign last year and whose father suffers from macular degeneration, a blinding disease that destroys central vision, leaving only a poor-quality periphery. The governor mentioned his father when he proposed spending $20 million on research that wouldn't destroy embryos. However, the money was denied by the state legislature as it grapples with a budget deficit. Still, Crist will be present to push for funding next summer while the general election is in full swing and one or two of the proposals work their way to the ballot, all of which will provide developments to keep stem cells in the news.

By moving up their primary dates, Florida and California have increased their influence in the nominating process, and with that comes increased attention to their issues – and stem cell research is likely to be among them.

Justin Miller is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at © 2000-2007 All Rights Reserved

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