Florida may be the next US state to fund embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research, under a proposed constitutional amendment put forward by the group Floridians for Stem Cell Research and Cures (FSCRC).
The proposal would allocate $200 million over ten years to the research and its backers say the language has been carefully designed to avoid the problems encountered in California, the first state to publicly fund ES cell research. California's $3 billion stem cell initiative was passed in November 2004 but has yet to be financed. Well known ES cell research advocate Bernard Siegel, vice chairman of FSCRC, said the group used Harvard Medical School ethicist and lawyer Louis Guenin to write the proposal. In order to create a proposal that was 'ethically beyond reproach', said Guenin, it states that the only embryos that can be used for ES cell research are those that are left over from fertility treatments and donated by women who specify that they may not be implanted in their wombs or any other woman's. Using such embryos to treat a sick person is morally preferable to allowing them to be discarded, said Guenin.
Siegel also says that the language used is designed to avoid political controversy. Unlike California's initiative, the Florida proposal says that no action is required by the state legislature - instead, the measure is to be immediately effective, using money drawn from the state's general fund. It is also straightforward enough to satisfy the Florida Supreme Court, which must authorise any amendments to the state constitution. In addition, the entire proposal is contained on two pages - unlike the California proposal, which was 30 pages long and 'loaded with all sorts of problems that I've tried to avoid here', Guenin said.
The new proposal would place the Florida Department of Health in charge of issuing money to qualified scientists and would also issue grants to non-profit research institutions only. In California, grants can be awarded to companies, which, say the drafters of the Florida proposal, can lead to conflicts of interest in the members of the board that oversees the funding applications.
Burt Aaronson, Commissioner for Florida's Palm Beach County, and leader of FSCRC, hopes to put the measure on the ballot for the November 2006 election. In order to do so, he will have to collect 611,000 signatures from registered voters on a petition by 31 December this year. Recognising that the task will not be easy, and that ES cell cures may not materialise in his lifetime, Aaronson said he was dedicated to furthering ES cell research. 'This is what I want to be remembered for, more than anything else', he said.
If the proposal does make the 2006 ballot, it is likely to make ES cell research into a hot issue in the next race for State governor. Reports say that candidates are expected to split along party lines - current Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican and brother of President George Bush, is known for his opposition to the research.
Meanwhile, an executive committee of the Illinois House of Representatives committee has approved by ten votes to three a proposal to use state funds for ES cell research. The bill, sponsored by Republican Tom Cross, would establish the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute and use state money to fund it. Advocates of ES cell research are trying to amend the bill to extend its provisions and call for a state referendum in 2006, asking whether $1 billion in bonds over ten years can be spent on the institute. State Governor Rod Blagojevich said that the IRMI will be committed to conducting all aspects of stem cell research, both ES cell research and adult stem cell research. However, 'since the federal government has chosen to stall the medical advancements that will come with stem cell research, it is up to the states to take action', he said.