Legislature sharply divided over stem cell bill, veto and aftermath

By Patrick B McGuigan

Governor Brad Henry’s veto of House Bill 1326, a measure to prevent use of embryonic stem cells for medical research, created sharp divisions in the Legislature last week. Although the bill originally drew strong bi-partisan support in both the Senate and House, the governor’s veto was narrowly sustained late last week.

Republicans assailed the veto, and split in nearly every particular from positions advanced by the State Chamber, and by the Oklahoma City and Tulsa Chambers of Commerce. The organizations had asked Gov. Henry to veto the bill.

Gov. Henry and other foes of HB 1326 argued the controversy was not a true pro-life issue, but Oklahomans for Life, Americans United for Life and other activists groups backed the bill and criticized his veto.

At the state Capitol, controversy continued to rage this week.

“The idea that Oklahoma should condone the destruction of innocent human life in the name of ‘economic development’ is indefensible,” state Rep. Pam Peterson, a Tulsa Republican and long-time pro-life advocate, said in a statement sent to The City Sentinel last week. “Our law clearly states that human life begins at conception. Now the chambers are advocating the destruction of a legally recognized life in exchange for research dollars, saying the state should determine the best use of a person’s life for the state’s purposes. That’s a huge paradigm shift that runs contrary to the basic values of our nation.”

State Rep. Lisa Billy, a Purcell Republican, also backed the measure, assailing the veto, the Chambers of Commerce and the governor’s veto.

“Even if there were no moral issues involved, embryonic stem cell research cannot be done solely with existing frozen embryos,” said Billy, R-Purcell. “It requires thousands of human eggs that will literally be harvested from the bodies of women, particularly poor women in dire financial straits. That kind of inhuman exploitation would be a black eye for Oklahoma’s reputation.”

Billy said chamber officials made inaccurate statements about proposed research efforts.

On April 21, Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, told local television station KWTV: “This is about using embryos that are currently frozen in banks that are going to be destroyed and thrown away. It is not about harvesting embryos. It is not about creating embryos for research.”

Pointing to a Rand Corporation study of the issue, Rep. Billy said Williams was wrong. Billy asserted, “There is no reason for Oklahoma to be involved in unproductive, morally repugnant research that involves the destruction of embryos and requires the strip-mining of women’s ovaries. We can avoid all those problems by simply funding adult stem cell research and the real cures it will generate.”

Providing full-throated support for the controversial veto was state Rep. Ryan Kiesel, a Seminole Democrat. He said,”Anyone who tries to tell you HB1326 is a pro-life bill is gravely mistaken. Passing this bill into law would not save a single life – in fact, it will prevent doctors from finding ways to save lives.”

In his statement sent to The City Sentinel, Kiesel continued, “Part of the reason why this is a bad bill is the harm it would do to our economic development and Oklahoma’s health care industry. But that’s only a part of it – the more important part is that we could ease suffering and save lives by rejecting this ban.”

Echoing Kiesel’s view was state Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, a Tulsa Democrat: “No research would be done on embryos that would ever be implanted into a woman or ever create a life. No embryo would be used for research without express consent from the man and the woman whose donated cells created the embryo. There are other established barriers that would limit how and when these embryos can be used. Preventing this law from taking effect does not open us up to a slippery slope, it only allows people a choice of what to do with unused embryos.”

Kiesel continued, “If this bill becomes law it sends a message that throwing those stem cells into the garbage is acceptable, but using those cells for research to save lives makes you a criminal.”

State Rep. Al McAffrey, a Democrat who represents part of MidTown Oklahoma City at the Capitol, said in a statement sent to The City Sentinel, “There are over half a million embryos sitting in frozen storage awaiting disposal, and if laws like this pass, all of them will simply be discarded. I don’t want to tell people that it’s better to use them for research than to dispose of them – I wouldn’t presume to tell them what is the better or the moral choice. But I also don’t want anyone telling these couples that throwing away these embryos is the only choice.”

McAffrey said, “When I voted against this bill, I was faced with a decision that Gov. Henry also had to consider – whether or not to pass a law that would block possible cures for terrible diseases. These embryos are forgotten and will be discarded, yet they offer us a potential window to learn more about the cures for diseases from Alzheimer’s to ALS.

McAffrey concluded, “I’m in favor of fighting debilitating injuries and curing disease, and because of that, I stand behind Gov. Henry’s veto.”

Rep. Peterson, for her part, could scarcely have been more blunt in her criticisms of the leading Chambers of Commerce: “If the chambers were serious about economic development and growing Oklahoma’s biotech industries, they would only support research with a proven track record requiring no moral compromise – our adult stem cell plan.”

Peterson said. “It’s clear that these organizations care more about catering favor from radical groups than improving our economy.”

In protest, Peterson and other pro-life legislators boycotted a joint Tulsa and Oklahoma City chamber event held last week. While initial veto override efforts have failed, some pro-life legislators were missing for those votes. Leaders have many options to reconsider the measures in the remainder of the 2009-10 Legislature.