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Correcting Misconceptions About New Jersey’s Stem Cell Legislation

In a recent Washington Post article, conservative columnist Robert Novak asked America the question: “New Jersey, the Cloning State?” This question and the column that followed focused on a bill I sponsored to promote embryonic stem cell research in New Jersey–a bill which expressly prohibits and criminalizes human cloning. This bill was recently approved by the State Senate and now awaits approval in the Assembly. Despite its explicit ban on human cloning, misconceptions exist about this legislation in New Jersey and apparently in other parts of the country.

As much as I would like to credit New Jersey with taking the national lead on both advancing the field of embryonic stem cell research and banning human cloning, we are not the first to do either. California was the first state to pass legislation like the New Jersey stem cell bill, although the California bill did not contain a provision against human cloning. California passed a separate law specifically banning human cloning. In New Jersey, we can only take credit for being the first state to combine these two important issues into one piece of legislation.

Being second is not so bad, though. In this case it’s actually quite impressive, considering we’re talking about legislation promoting responsible and regulated research, research which could potentially help millions of people worldwide suffering from life-threatening diseases and debilitating health conditions. Embryonic stem cell research has shown great potential for someday curing cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and spinal cord injuries, just to name a few.

Perhaps this is why leading American scientists and traditionally pro-life leaders including U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch and Nancy Reagan have lent their support to the field of embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps those of you out there who are still skeptical of the New Jersey bill would lend your support too, if the real science and intent behind the New Jersey stem cell bill was fully understood. The New Jersey bill was not intended to be an overly broad or ambiguous bill. It was carefully and deliberately crafted with the aid of leading national scientific researchers in the field and was modeled after California’s legislation. As noted above, the bill also goes further than the federal government in explicitly banning human cloning.

However, this piece of legislation deals with highly complex scientific issues, and the overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents and lawmakers, myself included, are not scientists. This legislation was not intended to be passed overnight, nor should it be. I therefore support careful and close examination of this bill by my Assembly colleagues so that any misconceptions about the legislation might be eliminated.

Such misconceptions about the bill exist, in large part, because certain groups who clearly either do not understand the bill or do not support it have circulated misinformation intended to confuse the issue, lawmakers, and the general public. These groups have made claims about the bill which are completely false and, in many cases, purport that the bill would do the exact opposite of what it would actually do. The massive amount of misinformation circulated by these organizations has led me to wonder whether the “legislative directors” and “senior research analysts” of these groups have even read the bill. In light of all of the misleading and outright false information that has been disseminated, I feel that it is necessary to clarify a few basic points:

Why is stem cell research so important? Stem cells have two unique characteristic that distinguish them from other types of cells and aid in the treatment of certain diseases and health conditions. First, a stem cell can renew itself for long periods of time through cell division. Second, under certain conditions, stem cells can become cells with certain functions–such as the beating cells of the heart muscle, or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Why do we need embryonic stem cell research? Embryonic stem cells are believed by scientists to lack limitations posed by adult stem cells, mainly in their ability to make many other cell types. Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University, a pioneer of research on adult stem cells, recently announced his proposal to develop new human embryonic stem cell lines. Mr. Weissman has dedicated a large part of his career to his work on adult stem cells. His newly expressed support for embryonic stem cell research reflects the general sentiment within the scientific community that these cells pose greater potential for curing some diseases than adult stem cells.

Why is so-called therapeutic “cloning” necessary? Somatic cell nuclear transplantation (SCNT), more commonly referred to as therapeutic “cloning”, is critical for advancing the field of stem cell research because it prevents patients’ bodies from rejecting the stem cells. The SCNT process is only termed therapeutic “cloning” because it involves the creation of stem cells using the patient’s DNA so that they are identical to the patient’s cells, and therefore will not be rejected or attack the patient. Unfortunately, groups have attacked this provision of the bill with outrageous claims about “baby farms” and “organ harvesting.” If these groups were more scientifically inclined, they would understand that human cloning and therapeutic cloning are two different things and that my bill expressly prohibits the type of human cloning to which they, myself, and most people in New Jersey, are opposed.

Why is this bill so important for New Jersey? New Jersey is a national leader in medical research and has top-notch scientists affiliated with its major universities. We have always welcomed medical advancement in this state. A welcoming state environment for advancement in the field of stem cell research is particularly important, given both the federal administration’s hostility to the field and the potential for advancement in many countries in Europe and Asia which are much more supportive of stem cell research.

The legislation which I have sponsored with Senator Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, in the Senate and which Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union, has sponsored in the Assembly would create a welcoming environment for stem cell research in New Jersey by providing patients at fertility clinics with the option to donate unused embryos created through fertility treatments to research. The bill would strictly prohibit the creation or sale of embryos for research purposes.

I urge you to consider the millions of people currently suffering from diseases which could be cured through advances in the field of embryonic stem cell research, and the millions of people who might someday avoid such suffering all together. I urge you to think about the thousands of unused embryos generated through fertility treatments every year in New Jersey alone. These embryos hold so much potential for living, breathing adults and children who are currently suffering and without hope.

This bill is not about cloning. This bill is about life. It is about advancing a science full of potential for sustaining human life which will be stifled in our state if this legislation fails. Other groups with alternative agendas have tried to confuse you with misinformation about this legislation. I have no alternative agenda. I urge you to put all of the misinformation aside and join me in supporting S-1909, simply because it is the right thing to do as a human being.

Democratic Senate President Richard J. Codey represents the 27th Legislative District, which includes parts of Essex County.