GOP-led House passes stem cell ban, despite voters approving constitutional amendment

By: - February 11, 2022 6:12 am

Assistant Professor of Genetics and Developmental Biology Stormy Chamberlain looks at stem cells at the University of Connecticut`s (UConn) Stem Cell Institute at the UConn Health Center on August 27, 2010 in Farmington, Connecticut. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Two bills passed by the Republican-controlled Michigan House this week could make it a five-year felony to conduct medical research on stem cells derived from an abortion.

The Michigan Constitution has enshrined a protection against such legislation for more than a decade. A substitute to one bill, however, includes a workaround to that section of the Constitution.

House bills 5558 and 5559, introduced by state Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) and state Rep. Bronna Kahle (R-Adrian), respectively, prohibit and define sentencing guidelines for “knowingly performing research on a dead fetus, embryo, or neonate obtained from an abortion.”

State Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Feb. 9, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Quoting biblical passages, Albert argued on the House floor Wednesday that research involving cells derived from abortions is a “horrific and barbaric practice that has led to the creation of an industry that revolves around the commodification of human beings.”

“That is nonsense,” GOP former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz responded Thursday in a phone call with the Advance.

Schwarz, a physician, chaired the successful 2008 Michigan Proposal 2, which Michiganders approved 53 to 47% in November 2008. That amendment to Michigan’s Constitution has allowed human embryonic stem cell research in the state ever since. It had bipartisan support, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and former Gov. Rick Snyder.

“Nobody is suggesting or performing abortions for the simple purpose of harvesting stem cells,” Schwarz said. “This is yet another example of legislative overreach by a Legislature, the vast majority of whom do not understand stem cell research, probably do not even understand what a stem cell is.”

Article one, section 27 of the Michigan Constitution ensures that “Michigan citizens have access to stem cell therapies and cures, and to ensure that physicians and researchers can conduct the most promising forms of medical research in this state, and that all such research is conducted safely and ethically, any research permitted under federal law on human embryos may be conducted in Michigan, subject to the requirements of federal law,” as well as several additional limitations and requirements outlined in the section.

A substituted version of the bill would exempt research that is ensured under article one, section 27.

“Ethical stem cell research has been done for years, and ethical stem cell research is the basis of a huge amount of research that’s being done. And it’s being done ethically, it’s being done with good controls,” Schwarz continued.

Former President Barack Obama also reversed federal prohibitions on stem cell research months after Michigan voters passed Prop 2.

Albert and Kahle did not respond to requests for comment.

In his floor speech, Albert also said “ethical alternatives” to fetal stem cells, like adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood, should be used in research instead.

“All of these ethical alternatives have shown successes and should be pursued in place of harvesting aborted tissue,” Albert said.

State Reps. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), Christine Morse (D-Texas Twp.) and Stephanie Young (D-Detroit) were among several Democrats to speak out against the bills on Wednesday. Morse spoke about her own experience with having an abortion, which she said was a difficult choice but a necessity to fight her breast cancer and likely save her life.

“Pregnant Michiganders deserve the right to decide,” Morse said.

Pohutsky argued that, in addition to curtailing previously funded research, the bills are inexplicably unconstitutional.

“Introducing circular legislation that, by its own admission, is unconstitutional and therefore amounts to a strongly worded Post-It note, is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Pohutsky said.

“… Voters made it clear that they found such research valuable and did not want to stand in the way of medical advancements they provided.”

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek) speaking on the U.S. House floor on an override vote of President George W. Bush’s veto of stem cell research legislation, 2005 | C-SPAN screenshot

Schwarz said that although they are “blatantly unconstitutional,” the GOP bills are not all-too surprising given the sway that the state’s powerful anti-choice Right to Life group has on Republican lawmakers.

“They have some zealots in the Legislature who will always push this. And the zealots in Right to Life will always push it. … And they sold it, because, obviously, a large number [of members] in the Legislature have no real working knowledge of the issue,” Schwarz said.

“Citizens have the right to participate in organ donation,” Young said in her floor speech Wednesday in opposition of the bills.

“I believe these same citizens should have the right to donate stem cells from the loss of their baby, regardless of the manner of loss.”

Both bills passed Wednesday on a partisan 55-51 vote. They now head to the GOP-controlled state Senate for consideration.

If passed by both chambers, HBs 5558 and 5559 would be presented to Whitmer, who would likely veto the measure.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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