By lifting federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research last week, the president has guaranteed a fractious, maybe permanent, debate over limits on the biotech industry and academic inquiry in this state — and much of the South.
Within three days of Obama’s long-expected announcement, the state Senate passed S.B. 169, a bill to prohibit one form of embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning.
The state university system and its flagship institution opposed the measure. Gov. Sonny Perdue appeared to endorse it. His chief industry recruiter, Kenneth Stewart, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development, was noticeably silent.
More than gay marriage, more than abortion, and certainly more than the Sunday sale of alcohol, the clash over embryonic stem cell research challenges the Republican alliance between conservative Christians and business interests.
At the same time, polls consistently show strong public support for the research, which uses donated embryos that would otherwise be discarded.
Republicans understand their dilemma. While the governor twice expressed his opposition to embryonic stem cell research last week, a spokesman said Perdue has not communicated that position to the Board of Regents. Which presumably means that state universities are free to pursue the federal grants expected to be offered in the late spring by the National Institute of Health.
GOP lawmakers, too, have been wary of the conflict.
The House considered its own restrictions on stem cell research last week. H.B. 388 would have declared every human embryo — whether in a womb or Petri dish — to be a child in the eyes of God, though not the state revenue commissioner. (A specific provision eliminated any income tax deduction for an embryo that hadn’t experienced birth.)
H.B. 388 was gutted, and only then approved by the chamber.
As originally written, S.B. 169 — now the focus of all discussion after its Thursday passage in the Senate — included even tougher provisions, including one that would have barred Georgia couples from donating to science the unused embryos derived from invitro fertilization.
Perdue says the legislation poses no threat to the biotech industry in Georgia, or its future. Many in the business couldn’t disagree more.
Milton Werner is president and CEO of Inhibikase Therapeutics, an Atlanta start-up company researching treatments for deadly diseases caused by human polyomaviruses. He was utterly deflated by last week’s stem cell debate.
“No commercial entity and no academic entity has any interest in ignoring important moral or social concerns,” Werner said. But the company president said he can’t attract capital if his researchers can’t operate freely.
And that means he can’t hire anyone trained by the 30 or so university faculty now researching stem cells in Georgia at six institutions. “We’re like our own version of China right now. We’re educating our people for export,” Werner said.
Passage of S.B. 169 was largely driven by Georgia Right to Life, which sees the use of embryonic stem cells as the new center of the pro-life fight, the heart of which is a legal definition of when life begins. “We’ve established a beachhead in the 21st century,” said GRTL President Dan Becker.
He admits that S.B. 169 may not fare well in the House. But Becker is refreshingly honest about his group’s aims, and says enough has already been accomplished to declare victory.
The Senate measure has injected uncertainty into the mind of any biotech executive operating in Georgia, Becker said. Keep up the fight year after year, and eventually businesses that rely on embryonic research will realize they’re not welcome.
Becker cited a similar strategy executed in Missouri. Many efforts at embryonic stem cell research in that state have shifted to nearby Kansas and Illinois.
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