OKLAHOMA’S lawmakers have deputized themselves as the science laboratory police. The only question now is whether Gov. Brad Henry will sign on as sheriff. The answer should be no. This week, the state Senate easily passed a bill that not only bans embryonic stem cell research, it makes such research a crime. The bill had previously passed the House by a wide margin and needs only the governor’s signature to become law. Embryonic stem cell research is a touchy issue, and there’s much to debate. One of our chief concerns in this case is whether the Legislature needs to involve itself so deeply in the debate. How far should lawmakers be allowed to go in dictating to scientists and researchers what work they can or can’t pursue? The attempted ban comes just after President Barack Obama announced he would free up more federal funds for stem cell research, much to the delight of states that have raced to support the research with state and private dollars during the years former President George W. Bush banned federal funding. Oklahoma wouldn’t be the first state to ban embryonic stem cell research. Five others — North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Indiana — have bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Dr. Stephen Prescott, president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, thinks the Oklahoma measure would be the broadest and takes a "sledge hammer” to an issue while ignoring alternatives. Some states have legalized embryonic stem cell research while deciding to ban state funding for that purpose. The measure awaiting Henry’s action makes no distinction between private and public funding. Scientists at OMRF, which receives no state funding for research, would face the same restrictions as those at publicly supported universities. Prescott said the proposed ban would be a "black eye” for the state as it "enshrines anti-intellectualism into state law.” Scientists might leave the state and others wouldn’t consider coming at all, he said. "It says that we are backward-looking, not forward-looking.” Depending on how the measure is interpreted, Prescott fears it also could keep doctors and patients in Oklahoma from participating in clinical trials that involve embryonic stem cells. We’re not suggesting Oklahoma become one of the handful of states pouring millions into embryonic stem cell research. We, like many others, have serious concerns about destroying embryos for research, especially given the promise of alternatives like adult stem cells. But neither are we convinced legislators should take on the role of science police or that they have gone beyond the feel-good effect of this proposed law to fully consider its implications. A veto is in order.
How far should lawmakers be allowed to go in dictating to scientists and researchers what work they can or can’t pursue?