Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Demand Justice on Embryonic Stem Cell Research at NU

In the University of Nebraska Board of Regents races, some voices have said the issue of embryonic stem cell research at NU was settled in 2009. As we approach the home stretch of a campaign season in which Nebraska voters may yet again elect a majority of regents opposed to embryonic stem cell research, let’s clarify the situation.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research sought from the Nebraska Legislature a ban on three things: 1) human cloning, 2) destruction of human embryos for research, and 3) expansion of embryonic stem cell research using stem cells from human embryos destroyed elsewhere. Opponents were told the first two were achievable, but the third would ignite a filibuster that would consume the entire proposal. We were told to go to the regents to block expansion of embryonic stem cell research.

That was not an endorsement of expanded embryonic stem cell research by the Legislature. The main legislative negotiators would later issue a public statement confirming that fact. A clear majority of state senators would have voted to limit embryonic stem cell research, but getting to a two-thirds super majority to overcome a filibuster was not likely.

For years, the University of Nebraska Medical Center had advocated cloning human embryos to destroy them for stem cell research. So we agreed to support a bill that banned clone-and-kill research and destruction of human embryos, and said nothing about expansion. The bill passed 48-0 in the spring of 2008.

That fall, Tim Clare’s election to the board of regents by a 58-42 percentage created a 5-3 majority against embryonic stem cell research. It was especially notable because Clare’s opponent had made embryonic stem cell research the number one issue in the race.

The regents’ policy was to follow federal guidelines on embryonic stem cell research. In the spring of 2009, with the federal government becoming more permissive toward embryonic stem cell research, opponents of such research pressed the regents to assert their autonomy, break from federal policy, and block expansion of embryonic stem cell research at NU. The regents are supposed to answer to the people of Nebraska, not hide behind presidential administrations or federal bureaucracies.

The burden was on our side to get the regents to approve a resolution blocking expansion because the NU president had announced that, given the existing policy of following federal guidelines, NU automatically could expand embryonic stem cell research absent action to block it by the regents.

Also in the spring of 2009, Regent Jim McClurg, a career biotech professional who understood the issue very well, was assuring constituents in writing that he would oppose expansion.

But in the fall, McClurg flipped. Without his support, a resolution to block expansion failed 4-4.

McClurg said the Legislature had created a “platform” for expansion of embryonic stem cell research in 2008, and that it would be wrong for the regents to intrude on the Legislature’s authority.

No, Regent McClurg. The Legislature left the authority in your hands, and you choked.

Was it a stick that turned McClurg? A carrot? Both? The only thing we know for sure is that it was a craven betrayal of voters.

Beginning with Howard Hawks’ successful campaign against an incumbent in 2002, embryonic stem cell research has been a major issue in regent campaigns. That’s why McClurg sought and got the Nebraska Right to Life endorsement in his successful 2006 campaign. It’s a severe breach of integrity when, for no plausible reason and despite numerous private and public guarantees consistent with his campaign pledge, an elected official defies the voters when it comes time to deliver on a promise.

Regents don't like the issue. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research don't want it restricted. Opponents know that conversations at country clubs, Memorial Stadium sky boxes (not Tom Osborne's, thank goodness), and other deep-pocket hangouts go smoother for supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Opponents are expected to have the good grace to apologize for their position and accept defeat gracefully.

It's never over if you don't give up. The 2012 primary election results were bullish for opponents of embryonic stem cell research, so the NU political machine no doubt wants to chloroform any effort to revisit embryonic stem cell research. But at the grassroots level where most Nebraskans live, the issue is not settled. It will not be settled until the regents’ policy reflects the will of the taxpaying majority that elects them.

Press your regent candidates for commitments to restrict or abolish embryonic stem cell research at NU. If the general election produces yet another majority opposed to embryonic stem cell research, the regents should act accordingly and atone for the miscarriage of electoral justice that happened in 2009.

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