The White House on Monday took issue with California’s new law supporting stem cell research, even as administrators of a $24.6-million state fund said they would begin soliciting proposals from 10,500 scientists for new stem cell experiments.
Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation Sunday that says the state, as a broad matter of policy, encourages research using stem cells, including those from human embryos. While embryos are usually donated by patients at fertility clinics, the legislation also supports cloning as a way to create human embryos for stem cell research.
Reacting Monday to the California law, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer initially said President Bush saw the measure as a matter of states’ rights.
“As a governor, he did not appreciate the federal government stepping in, telling states what to do,” Fleischer said.
Later, he amended his comments: “The president believes that all policies, state or federal, need to respect the culture of life. He differs with Gov. Davis on this.”
Public support for research using stem cells has pitted many scientists against antiabortion groups and some religious denominations.
Scientists say stem cells can illuminate the basic workings of cellular life. Many hope they also can be fashioned into cures for disease.
Antiabortion groups and the Roman Catholic Church, however, are pushing Congress to bar the research because of the use of cells from embryos.
Bush has limited federal funding for stem cell research to only a narrow range of experiments using groups of stem cells, known as cell lines, that already exist.
Several states, including Iowa, Michigan and South Dakota, have passed legislation to ban embryo research or cloning within their borders. California is the first to pass a law supporting stem cell research, said Alissa Johnson of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The legislation makes only relatively minor changes to state law. It was already legal to isolate and study embryonic stem cells, though federal funding was limited. It also was legal to create cloned human embryos for research, though not with taxpayer money and not to create a child.
Supporters say the law is intended to give a morale boost to stem cell scientists, some of whom had abandoned the field for fear of building their careers on research that soon would be barred or curtailed by the federal government.
Now, state officials say the state is on record as being “open for business” for stem cell scientists.
An administrator for a University of California program said she was moving quickly to solicit proposals for state-funded experiments. “We are sending out a mailing this week,” said Susanne Huttner, associate vice provost for research at UC Berkeley.
Huttner administers the UC Discovery Grant program, which gives out $24.6 million annually to UC scientists. She said the fund had supported stem cell research in the past but had gotten no new applications in recent years.
“We stopped getting proposals when the political debate started to peak in Washington,” she said.
The law adds requirements for work with human embryos:
* Scientific and ethical review boards must approve any stem cell experiments done by private companies. Most companies use such boards voluntarily. The boards already are required of any scientist using federal money.
* Fertility doctors are now required to discuss with their patients the options of discarding extra embryos, donating them to another couple or offering them to researchers. They also may be frozen for future attempts at pregnancy.
Johnson, of the state legislatures group, said California was “unique” in requiring doctors to discuss donation for research.
* No one may buy or sell embryos or fetal material for research purposes, though scientists may pay “reasonable” processing or transportation costs.
A federal ban on cloning or embryonic stem cell research would trump the new state law, though advocates of the measure would likely take the issue to court.
Also Monday, Davis signed into law a bill that makes it illegal to use cloning to produce a child, extending a ban due to expire Jan. 1.