California Defies Federal Stem Cell Policy

Published November 1, 2002

On September 22, California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill that encourages stem cell research using embryos from fertility clinics or embryonic cloning. The measure takes effect January 1, 2003.

The move puts California directly at odds with federal government policy, outlined by President George W. Bush in August 2001, which allows federally funded scientists to conduct their research only with 78 existing stem cell lines. (For background on the debate, see “Bush Takes Center Field on Stem Cell Funding Issue,” Health Care News, September 2001.)

California Senate Bill 253 was introduced by State Senator Deborah V. Ortiz (D-Sacramento), whose mother died of ovarian cancer in 1999. “I have a commitment to cancer research,” Ortiz told “California will protect science and research while the rest of the country is still questioning.”

Enlisting Fertilization Clinics

Ortiz’s measure declares “that the policy of the state shall be that research involving the derivation and use of human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells, and human adult stem cells from any source” shall be permitted.

To give the new policy teeth, the California law requires in vitro fertilization clinics to inform patients that they have several options for the disposition of any human embryos left over after the fertility treatment. Those options, outlined in the law, include “storing any unused embryos, donating them to another individual, discarding the embryos, or donating the remaining embryos for research.” Clinics are required to get written consent from any patient who elects to donate embryos for research.

The measure forbids the sale of embryonic cells for profit and establishes a state ethics committee to review and approve any research that uses embryonic stem cells. A separate measure signed by Davis on September 23, Senate Bill 1230, outlaws human cloning and the purchase and sale of embryos and fetuses for the purpose of human cloning.

Symbolic Victory Only?

Leading researchers in the field downplayed California’s move as mostly symbolic … though welcome.

“We certainly appreciate the intent,” said Thomas B. Okarma, MD, PhD, president of Geron Corp., a Menlo Park, California biopharmaceutical firm. “But it’s not clear whether it will translate into funding, or programs, or real work.”

That’s because the Bush administration policy still trumps California law when it comes to federally funded researchers … and the federal government provides roughly 90 percent of research funding in the U.S. Curt Civin, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, considers the California law “important as a statement,” but essentially a “hollow victory.”

The California bill does promise state funding and matching funds from private biotech companies. The state’s biomedical industry boasts 2,500 companies that invest more than $2.1 billion every year in research. Moreover, according to Susanne Huttner, associate vice provost for research at the University of California, the state budget has $24.6 million to allocate for stem cell research. Last year, she says, the state’s university system received no proposals for stem cell research, even though there was money available. Since the governor signed SB 253, she says, proposals have started coming in.

Dr. Bertram Lubin, MD, senior vice president for research at Children’s Hospital & Research Institute at Oakland University, predicted most researchers would “tread lightly on this for a while,” fearful that accepting California research funds under the new law might jeopardize their federal funding. He nevertheless appreciated the measure’s political potential, noting “California may push the federal government to change its policies.”

States’ Rights

When asked for the President’s reaction to California’s action, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called it a matter of “states’ rights.” “The President has always said states have authority within their states,” Fleischer said at a September 23 news conference. “The President placed a series of ethical requirements” on stem cell research conducted with federal funds. “That’s a federal matter. I don’t comment on state matters. The President has put protections in place that he thinks are appropriate on the federal level.”

He repeated the position in a press briefing the following day. “As President, that’s not his purview,” Fleischer said, “to sign or veto every bill passed by every legislature in every state.

“The President has spoken very plainly to the American people about the importance of creating a culture that values life. And in that, he differs with Governor Davis on this matter. The President has set forward a stringent set of federal guidelines to make certain that ethical considerations are put in place … that values the culture of life. And that’s what the President has done on the federal level.”

Bush believes it is immoral to exploit embryos to create new stem cell lines because “even the most noble ends do not justify any means.” The President’s supporters on this issue, including anti-abortion groups and the Roman Catholic church, contend embryonic stem cell research is murder, as it starts with the destruction of a human embryo.

In keeping with the “states’ rights” theme, New Jersey State Senators Richard J. Codey and Barbara Buono introduced a measure (S 1909) similar to California’s on September 30. Their counterparts in the State Assembly, Assemblymen Neil M. Cohen, John F. McKeon, and Mims Hackett Jr. followed with an identical measure (A 2840) on October 3.

According to Ortiz’s office, New Mexico and Oregon may be considering similar bills. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports Maryland and Virginia are considering bills that would create special panels dedicated to exploring the potential of stem-cell research.

At the federal level, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) introduced in January 2002 a bill that would ban human cloning and impose criminal penalties on those found guilty of cloning or using embryonic stem cells or stem cell-derived therapies obtained through human cloning. The measure has 30 cosponsors and is identical to a House bill (HR 2505) passed in July 2001 by a 265-162 vote. If the Senate and House measures are combined and offered to the President, Bush has said he would sign it, which would make California’s new law moot.

Diane Carol Bast is vice president of The Heartland Institute and editor of Health Care News. Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News.

For more information …

The full text of the California stem cell research law is available on the Internet. Point your Web browser to for the HTML version, or for the bill in Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format.

The New Jersey measures are also available on the Internet. For the HTML version, go to; for the PDF version, go to