Life, Death and Money

Will Texas pony up bucks to lead in stem cell research? Pro-lifers hope not.

Thompson and Democrat Elliott Naishtat of Austin authored separate bills this session to provide more than $1 billion in state funding for Texas stem cell research, but neither bill went to a vote by this month's voting deadline.

A more modest proposal passed the House last Thursday as a rider that Houston Republican Beverly Woolley attached to an education bill. It provides $41 million for an "adult stem cell research center" at the Texas Medical Center.

Woolley says the bill's wording also would allow embryonic cell research.

Riley Boswell and his mother, Amy, oppose embryonic 
stem cell research, even if it could lead to a cure for 
Riley’s diabetes.
Josh Harkinson
Riley Boswell and his mother, Amy, oppose embryonic stem cell research, even if it could lead to a cure for Riley’s diabetes.

California already has wagered heavily on the same ideas. Its voters last year approved Proposition 71, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and authorized a whopping $3 billion in state bonds for the research. Proposals in nine other states this year would together nearly match California's wad of cash.

Bush's cold shoulder has allowed California to woo Houston's stem cell experts. Geng has been offered positions in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. His lab recently lost two job candidates to labs in California, where they said they could find more funding.

Woolley's rider still must pass the Senate, escape a finance committee's ax and somehow slide past Governor Rick Perry, who has said he'll oppose any legislation that funds the destruction of a human embryo. Perry knows what he's doing. The conservative right is the home team in Texas, and its players are swinging for the bleachers.

On a Little League field in Red Oak, south of Dallas, the Mustangs send their slightly pudgy right fielder to the plate. Riley Boswell ignores the other team's fourth-grade taunts. He gets a walk, steals second and takes third off a grounder--all with a $5,000 computer jostling in his pocket.

The inning ends, and he jogs into the dugout. "Riley, you all right?" a coach asks. The 10-year-old silently unzips a black medical kit, pricks his arm twice with a needle and watches it pool with blood. He might need to adjust the computer--an insulin pump--but the other team's batter is already swinging. The coach says, "Riley, you've got to move."

Riley knows that juvenile diabetes is a constant pain in the ass, the back, the arm and everywhere else he has to prick himself. That could change now that doctors are working on a cure for the disease using embryonic stem cells.

His mom, Amy Boswell, knows such a cure could extend her son's life. But that doesn't matter to her. "If they found a cure from embryonic stem cells," says the former nurse, "Riley would never be cured. We just wouldn't do it.

"I feel like human life begins at conception," explains Boswell, 33. "And every human life is precious and unique and should be respected, should be protected."

Despite its black-and-white simplicity, or because of it, Boswell's view is gaining increasing support. Texas Right to Life, a group lobbying hard against embryonic stem cell research, has more than tripled its membership in the past 10 years.

Thanks to ousters of incumbents last year in the wake of Republican-led redistricting, "We have a more pro-life Legislature than we've ever had in 130 years," says Stacey Emick, Texas Right to Life's legislative director. "So this is a big time for us."

Of course, states such as Texas can't simply outlaw abortion, so pro-life groups focus on related hot-button topics, such as embryonic stem cell research. "Our mission is to protect innocent human life from fertilization until natural death," Emick says, "so embryos that are...subjects of experimental research and would die because of that fall under our purview of protecting human life."

Emick and Boswell oppose embryonic stem cell research in both of its forms.

The traditional form involves extracting stem cells from a fertilized egg--usually only a few days old--which can be obtained, for example, from an in-vitro fertilization clinic with the consent of the parents. There are an estimated 400,000 such embryos in frozen storage, many of which will be destroyed if they are not used for research.

The newer form, therapeutic cloning, involves the same methods used to clone Dolly the sheep but cut off at a much earlier stage. In a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists take a nucleus from almost any cell in the human body, implant it into a human egg, grow the resulting cloned embryo for a few days and harvest its cells.

Texas Right to Life conducted a poll in 2002 that found that 69 percent of respondents in Texas opposed medical research using therapeutic cloning. Some national polls, however, show mild overall support for the practice. Even so, five states have banned it.

Last session, Texas nearly joined them, when Texas legislators narrowly rejected a similar measure.

Stem cell debate this session kicked off with an overflowing, 13-hour hearing before the House State Affairs Committee. Representative Phil King, a Weatherford Republican, showed up with his laptop and beamed onto the wall a drawing of petri dishes filled with identical googling babies. "I think this is really a crossroads time for Texas," he said. "I think the public wants a cloning ban."

King's own anti-cloning bill failed to reach the House floor, however. An identical bill, pushed by GOP Senator Ken Armbrister of Victoria, is still pending. (Three other Senate bills would protect therapeutic cloning.)

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