Religious Right Trumps Science in Minnesota Governor’s Stem Cell Veto

Andy Birkey

In vetoing a stem cell funding bill, Michigan Governor Tim Pawlenty extolled the virtues of adult-derived stem cells, rather than embryonic stem cells, for research. But Pawlenty's reasoning demonstrate that ideology won out over science.

The stem cell bill offered at the Minnesota Legislature this year,
which would have allowed the University of Minnesota to use state funds
to conduct research on embryonic stem cells, was authored by a Democrat
and doctor of biophysics, Rep. Phyllis Kahn. It was vetoed by lawyer
and evangelical Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty’s veto message appears to borrow its point of view from both
the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and a report commissioned by
the White House to deflect criticism from Bush’s veto of a federal stem
cell bill (PDF). Pawlenty vetoed the bill because it was not "consistent with sound ethical and moral standards."


Pawlenty’s veto message extolled the virtues of adult-derived stem
cells, particularly those extracted from umbilical cords, placentas and
amniotic fluid, as superior to embryonic stem cells. The difference
between the two has to do with their applicability for research.
Embryonic cells are pluripotent, while adult stem cells are
multipotent. The difference is in the cell’s mutability: Pluripotent
cells are capable of developing into many kinds of tissue, and are thus
more powerful tools in the course of medical research.

But new research has given Pawlenty and the religious right reason to
be excited. Researchers have developed adult stem cells that act like
embryonic stem cells. They are pluripotent and are called "induced" pluripotent stem cells.

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"Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by destroying live
embryos, iPSCs are made directly from adult stem cells by adding a
small number of factors to these cells in the laboratory," Pawlenty
wrote. "No human eggs are used and no embryos are destroyed." Pawlenty
wrote that that is the research funding he would be willing to sign.

There’s a big problem with iPSC research that Pawlenty and his
religious right advisers have failed to mention. iPSCs could cause
cancer — one of the diseases they are being created to combat.

That’s because iPSCs are made by injecting genetic material into adult cells.
One of those genes, called c-Myc, can induce cancer. Luckily,
scientists have found a way around that issue and identified another
gene to use. The problem? In order to get those genes into the cells,
they have to use a retrovirus that likewise could possibly cause cancer.

That virus carries the genes into the cells and deposits them into the
DNA of the cell, where those genes transform the cell into a
pluripotent cell. The virus used to carry the genes into the cell’s DNA
is called a lentivirus.
One lentivirus that is known by name in most every home in America: the
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), also known as the virus that causes
AIDS.

Stem cell biologist Robert Lanza told Scientific American that there are a number of other hurdles
to using these cells versus embryonic ones. "These cells have been
severely modified. I don’t think the FDA would allow us to use these
virally modified cells," he said.

It’s probably unlikely that researchers will be able to find willing
participants to be injected with a virus in the same family as HIV,
even if initial indications are that it’s safe.

The researchers who conducted the studies that Pawlenty touts have said
that their research should not be seen as a replacement for embryonic
stem cell research. William Lowry of UCLA’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center
of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research helped create the technology.
"It is important to remember that our research does not eliminate the
need for embryo-based human embryonic stem cell research, but rather
provides another avenue of worthwhile investigation," Lowry has said.

Pawlenty’s veto letter does little to explain to Minnesotans the real
science behind the bill he rejected, but it does show that religious
ideology has trumped science again in Minnesota.

Analysis Politics

In Michigan Governor’s Race, Candidates Battle Over Economy, Reproductive Rights

Nina Liss-Schultz

This November, Michigan residents will decide whether to cast their vote for Republican incumbent Rick Snyder or long-time Democratic politician Mark Schauer in the gubernatorial election. The candidates have already begun to spar over the economy, education, and public health in the state, which will all be central issues leading up to the November election.

That Michigan is in the middle of a deep financial crisis is no secret. For the last decade, a combination of the flight of wealthier residents to the suburbs and the decay of the auto industry has left many Michigan cities on the brink of financial ruin. Detroit, the state’s largest city, declared bankruptcy a year ago, making it the most populous city in the country to ever do so. Since then, Detroit has made news for shutting off water to residents, for the overwhelming number of vacant and abandoned homes and buildings, and a maternal mortality rate three times higher than the national average and higher than rates of maternal mortality in Libya, Uruguay, and Vietnam.

Though Detroit has been the face of Michigan’s economic crisis, the state’s money woes go well beyond the Motor City: 12 municipalities, including Detroit, and five school districts are in serious financial stress, and many of those institutions have been taken over by emergency financial managers appointed by the state government, ostensibly in the hopes of keeping the municipalities afloat. Many others are on the brink.

This November, Michigan residents will decide whether to cast their vote for Republican incumbent Rick Snyder or long-time Democratic politician Mark Schauer in the gubernatorial election. The candidates have already begun to spar over the economy, education, and public health in the state, which will all be central issues leading up to the November election.

Economy and the Emergency Manager System

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The emergency manager system under Gov. Snyder has been perhaps the most controversial policy of the governor’s term so far. The system—in which officials appointed by the governor intervene in the finances of economically stressed municipalities—has existed in Michigan in some form since the late 1980s. Gov. Snyder, however, has drastically expanded the scope and jurisdiction of these managers. According to an MSNBC reporter, the system under Snyder has “economically transformed” the State of Michigan. It has been dubbed “Financial Martial Law” by advocates and “disaster capitalism” by opponents.

Schauer, a Democrat who represented Michigan in the U.S. House from 2009-2011 after more than a decade in state-level politics, has made the emergency manager system a central criticism of his opponent.

After taking office in 2011, Gov. Snyder made a move to revamp the system by signing into law Public Act 4, shortly after taking office in 2011. The act allowed emergency managers to essentially control city government at the behest of the state. Once the governor’s administration declares a financial emergency, managers are given power over elected officials and to change local statutes. The emergency manager can hire and fire local officials as they see fit, sell local assets, and change local law, among other things. PA 4 was repealed by a voter referendum the following year. Then, shortly after the repeal in 2012, Snyder signed into law another emergency manager bill, Public Act 436, which took effect in 2013.

As with PA 4, under Public Act 436, emergency managers take the place of the local government or governing body. The manager has the power to enact law by decree, disregard local law, cancel collective bargaining and union contracts, privatize existing services, and even dissolve the local municipality in some cases.

Unlike PA 4, PA 436 gives municipalities slightly more power. For example, after 18 months a local government or school district can vote to get rid of the emergency manager. It also has more options out the outset: when a financial crisis is declared, the municipality can choose between four types of emergency management systems. 

But the newer law also places some additional restrictions on Michigan residents’ ability to voice opposition to emergency managers, by including a provision that prohibits voters from repealing PA 436 through the referendum process, which was used to ax Public Act 4.

Many opponents to the legislation say that PA 436 is nearly identical to PA 4, and doesn’t address the public’s concerns with the system.

“The trouble with the emergency manager law is that the government shoved it down people’s throats,” says Shelli Weisberg, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. Groups have attempted to recall Gov. Snyder twice during his term.

Though the title “emergency manager” implies that the city’s financial stress is due to mismanagement or incompetent bureaucrats, economic experts in the state say that in most cases, financial crises are the result of systemic economic issues, not municipal mismanagement. Eric W. Lupher, research director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a fact-based, non-partisan research institution, says that Michigan has been in economic decay for over a decade. “The root of the problem is the rust-belt status of so many cities in Michigan,” Lupher told Rewire in an interview. While most of the nation rebounded after the post-9/11 recession, Michigan stayed in a rut. “Year after year, the economic growth of the state declined.” A combination of the move away from auto-manufacturing—a major source of revenue for the state—in the United States, and what Lupher calls “community disinvestment”—wherein the wealthy leave cities for the suburbs, leaving “behind communities that don’t have the tax base to support services”—Michigan cities and their residents have struggled to stay afloat.

Notably, as The Atlantic points out, African Americans are by far the majority population in cities and school districts controlled by emergency managers. While cities with emergency managers contain about 9 percent of Michigan’s population, they also contain an estimated half of the state’s Black population.

Schauer, along with his running mate Lisa Brown, has staunchly opposed Snyder’s economic policies and the emergency manager system, and has offered an alternative approach. This month, at a Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Schauer criticized the emergency manager system saying it “sets aside elected officials … with accountability to only one person, and that’s the governor.”

At the conference, Schauer said that if elected governor he would scrap the emergency manager law and replace it with “financial transition teams” that would collaborate with local governments toward financial solvency.

Education

Schauer has also come out strong against Gov. Snyder’s education policies and the so-called education crisis in Michigan. “The single most important investment we can make in Michigan’s economy is the education of our children,” reads his website. “Mark will work to put students first by reversing Gov. Snyder’s devastating cuts to our schools and colleges.”

Though Snyder has recently taken steps to reinvest in the Michigan school system, according to the Michigan Education Association, “during his first year in office, Snyder cut school funding to give billions of dollars in tax breaks to big corporations—resources that children are not likely to recoup unless their classrooms are fully funded.” Despite the recent increase in funding, per-pupil investment in the state in 2015 will still be below the 2009 level. As of February, 46 school districts were operating with a budget deficit.

The education system is unique in Michigan: unlike in most places, school districts in the state are independent of, not run by, local governments. According to Lupher, the districts’ independence also leaves them uniquely vulnerable to economic issues. “In the Michigan cities that have experienced economic decline, the same is true of the school districts because they have that tax base.”

So in addition to the lack of government investment in schools, the systemic economic issues that caused the downturn in cities such as Detroit have also hit school districts hard.

That 46 schools are running a deficit is seemingly an improvement on 2013, when 50 schools were under water. The reason for the decrease, though, is not so encouraging: several schools were dissolved and several other struggling schools merged.

The state government has declared five school districts to be in a state of financial emergency, including the entire public school system of Detroit. The managers of at least two of those school districts have turned their public schools into charters, and hired private companies to manage them.

On his website, candidate Schauer says he plans to remove the profit motive from charter schools if elected governor. In July, Schauer released a ten-point plan, titled “Blueprint: A Michigan That Works for Everyone,” which calls for, in part, an increased investment in education.

Snyder has disputed Schauer’s criticism, saying that he has increased both state funding of the K-12 system and early childhood education. According to Michigan Live, Snyder says he has increased funding to classrooms by “$660 more per student.” That claim is misleading, however, because it’s not all going directly to the classroom and is instead going to other parts of the education system, including fulfillment of teachers’ retirement plans.

Reproductive Health Care 

Though fiduciary concerns may take center stage in the run up to the November election, access to health care, and particularly reproductive care, has been a lightning rod in the state during Snyder’s term.

Snyder and Schauer have made clear and distinct names for themselves in relation to their position on abortion and reproductive rights. According to the ACLU’s Shelli Weisberg, Snyder has tried to remain as neutral as possible on the issue. “From the beginning he’s said it’s not one of his top priorities.” But, while Snyder has taken a stand against at least one piece of extreme anti-choice legislation, during his term some of the most controversial anti-choice legislation in the country has made its way through Michigan’s legislature, whether by his signature or through alternative legislative processes.

In December 2013, Michigan lawmakers passed the Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act, which has become known as the “Rape Insurance Act,” banning private insurance plans from covering abortion in most cases, including rape or incest, and unless the woman buys coverage through a separate rider. The bill became law without the governor’s signature, because it had been introduced through the citizen’s initiative process, which does not require one.

According to the Huffington Post, the year before the legislation passed there were 23,230 abortions in Michigan, and fewer than 4 percent of abortions were paid by insurers. Abortions can cost anywhere between $500 and $10,000, depending on the circumstances.

Notably, Gov. Snyder had vetoed a similar measure the year before. According to the Detroit Free Press, Snyder said he wanted to remain moderate on the issue of abortion. “I’m a pro-life person … but still, I wanted to strike a balance.”

Though the governor’s veto in 2012 was a win for women, he also signed into law several pieces of anti-choice legislation during his term. During his first year in office, Gov. Snyder signed into law a “partial-birth” abortion ban, Public Act 168, which makes it a felony to perform so-called partial-birth abortions, itself a misnomer and myth.

Candidate Schauer voted against earlier iterations of the legislation while serving in Michigan’s state government.

The next year, Snyder signed into law an omnibus anti-choice bill, which included a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) provision imposing the same regulations on abortion clinics that are required of hospital operating rooms, and a ban on tele-medicine prescriptions for first-trimester medication abortions.

Aside from the legislation it has introduced, the Michigan legislature has made a name for itself as traditionalist and anti-woman. Most recently, a local reporter tweeted a picture of three state representatives reading fashion magazines and quoted them saying, “Don’t say we don’t understand women.” And in 2012, Lisa Brown, who is now running alongside Schauer for lieutenant governor, was notoriously barred from speaking on the house floor after saying the word “vagina.”

Weisberg says that the GOP’s reputation will hurt Snyder in the race, and will only add to Schauer economic case against the governor. “Keeping the government out of the exam room, and ‘This isn’t my boss’s business’” are salient issues for women in the state right now. “I think that women’s rights will play an important role, mostly around birth control and women being treated as second-class citizens in terms of their health-care needs,” she says.

Though Weisberg says that Republicans in the state, including Snyder, will try to come off as neutral on gender equality and reproductive justice in order to get the women’s vote, in the lead up to November Schauer will do his best to position himself in opposition to Snyder’s politics, both economic and social.

News Politics

Congressman Touts Stem-Cell Lab Tour Despite Opposing Stem-Cell Research

Jason Salzman

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who’s widely seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress, touted his visit to a stem-cell laboratory even though he’s on record opposing research with embryonic stem cells, which are used in the lab he toured.

Rep. Mike Coffman is on record opposing embryonic stem-cell research, but that didn’t stop the Colorado Republican from touring a stem-cell laboratory at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and tweeting, “Happy to get the chance to tour the Stem Cell Research facility.”

A spokesman for the school, which is located in Coffman’s district, confirmed that the stem-cell facility visited by Coffman November 8 uses stem cells obtained from human embryos.

In 2008 and 2010, Coffman supported Colorado’s failed “personhood” initiatives, which aimed to define life as beginning at conception, when embryos form, and would have banned not only embryonic stem-cell research but also all abortions and some common forms of birth control.

Coffman’s November 8 tweet about his tour of the stem-cell facility included a photo of the Congressman viewing laboratory machines.

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“This is a ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ situation,” said Karen Middleton, executive director of Pro-Choice Colorado, in an email offering a response to Coffman’s tweet. “Mike Coffman’s support for anti-choice personhood measures and his opposition to stem-cell research don’t really fit here. If he is sincere about supporting women and science, he needs to issue a statement about his new policy position, not just stage a photo-op.”

Coffman’s office did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Coffman’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research was spotlighted in a political advertisement by the House Majority Project during the 2012 election, which Coffman won by a 2 percent margin over Democratic challenger Joe Miklosi.

A fact check of the ad by 9News, Denver’s local NBC affiliate, confirmed Coffman’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.

9News reported, “This year, Congressman Coffman was asked point blank by Colorado Right to Life, ‘Will you oppose any research or practice that would intentionally destroy the tiniest living humans, embryonic stem cell research?’ With a pen he wrote, ‘Yes.'”

9News also reported, “A spokesperson says, he isn’t against stem-cell research in general, just embryonic, because the cells are harvested from embryos, and he says, that is a human life.”

Responding to Coffman’s position, Rep. Diana Degette (D-CO) said last year, “If a candidate like Mike Coffman says, ‘I don’t support embryonic stem cell research but I support other types,’ that’s not supporting the full range of ethical stem cell research, which could block off research into some diseases and would impede the progress of the research in general.”

University of Colorado School of Medicine spokesperson Mark Couch said that the university’s stem-cell laboratory, called the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology, mostly relies on induced pluripotent stem cells, which are derived from adult stem cells, though embryonic stem cells are also used.

“The [embryonic stem-cell] lines that have been approved by the federal government are used for comparison purposes with the induced pluripotent stem cells,” said Couch.

Coffman’s congressional seat is widely seen as one of the most competitive in the country, after it was re-drawn after the 2010 Census. Political observers here expect the stem-cell issue to come into play again next year, as it did in 2012, as Coffman and his Democratic challenger Andrew Romanoff vie for the support of moderates, especially women and Hispanics, whose votes will likely decide the election.