Michigan Legislature seeks human embryo research accountability

In 2008, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment (Proposal 2) allowing scientific research that destroys human embryos in order to obtain stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research was already legal in Michigan before the ballot measure, with state researchers using stem cells harvested from human embryos in other states or countries.

The proposal was presented as having many safeguards and that the research would be ethically conducted. But with Proposal 2's actual language providing for no public oversight or accountability of the research, Michigan citizens and government officials have no basis for knowing whether Proposal 2 is being properly adhered to by researchers.

Legislators in Lansing are seeking some answers, beginning first by asking any publicly-funded university that is conducting human embryonic stem cell research to report some basic information to the state. The budget bill funding universities beginning October 1, 2011, contained “boilerplate language” instructing the universities to indicate how many human embryos have been donated to them, how many have been destroyed for their stem cells, how many stem cell lines have been created, and how many human embryos are being held in storage.

Universities, led by the University of Michigan, fought to keep this language out of the budget bill. When signing the budget into law, Governor Snyder stated his opinion that the reporting requirement was unconstitutional and unenforceable. However, on the same day, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a letter to the provision's main sponsor, Rep. Bob Genetski, confirming the legislature's authority to request information from public universities. Typically an attorney general's opinion carries the weight of law unless a court of law rules otherwise.

Michigan State University submitted answers to the five simple questions on their 2011 activites as required, but the University of Michgan refused to answer the questions and instead responded with a cover letter and 50 pages of newspaper clippings.

Additional bills are being prepared that will provide further clarity as to what is truly happening with human embryo research in Michigan. Since there are neither definitions for key terms nor penalties for violations spelled out in Proposal 2, the Legislature has a duty to fill in these missing pieces and ensure compliance.

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