Michigan's Proposal 2 draws more heat than presidential race


DETROIT - As far as Michigan's future is concerned, the most important thing on the ballot may not, in fact, be the presidential election, but a constitutional proposal addressing stem-cell research.

Proposal 2 would allow scientists to use donated, early-stage embryos discarded from fertility clinics for stem-cell research that some believe could lead to what would seem like miracle cures.

"Embryonic stem-cell research has the power to bring hope to the sick in Michigan where there has been none, and healing to people in horrible suffering," said former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, a physician from Battle Creek.

"It offers physicians a gateway into a fantastic array of new techniques to bring better health care to their patients. And it can provide a major economic stimulus to Michigan's lagging economy," he wrote in a widely distributed newspaper column.

Dr. Schwarz is anything but a wild-eyed, left-wing radical. He is a Republican, a veteran of both the Navy and the CIA, and a strong supporter of both the war in Iraq and GOP Presidential nominee John McCain. He is also a practicing Roman Catholic.

Yet he firmly backs Proposal 2. "Who could possibly be against bringing new hope and healing into the world?" he said.

The answer is a coalition of people who object on religious grounds - and have a lot of money. Proposal 2 is being bitterly opposed by a coalition of opponents who essentially see it as sanctioning murder of the unborn - even though any cells that would be used would have to be donated and would otherwise be discarded as medical waste.

"This opens the door to a Pandora's box of frightening research and weird science," says David Doyle, the spokesman for a group called MiCAUSE, for Michigan Citizens Against Unrestricted Science and Experimentation. MiCAUSE seems to be well-endowed.

During a phone interview, Mr. Doyle admitted it is partly funded by the Catholic Church and Michigan Right-to-Life. It has been running a steady stream of TV spots against the proposal.

But upon examination, many of MiCAUSE's claims could be best characterized, in words of Dr. Schwarz, as "nothing but lies." Indeed, almost all its advertising seems to highly distort the truth. It makes claims that the proposal will cost Michigan taxpayers money, which is not true; that it would open the door to "human cloning," which is specifically and strictly illegal.

Lately, its spokesmen even have said it could pave the way to "man-cow hybrids." This week, in what seemed a carefully crafted appeal to racism, it began running commercials equating Proposal 2 with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

In fact, Proposal 2 only allows the donation - by the mother - of early-stage embryos, tiny balls of undifferentiated cells no more than a few days old. They cannot be bought or sold, never would become babies, and would otherwise be discarded as medical waste.

"The opponents of Proposal 2 clearly have no intention of letting the truth stand in their way," says Dr. Schwarz, who gets angry even talking about it. They are religious fanatics, he says, who "want to impose their own narrow values on others."

"They have lots of money, and will use it shamelessly to distort the truth," he says.

That, in fact, seems to be the case. The Detroit News is a conservative newspaper that never has endorsed a Democrat for president. But it has strongly endorsed Proposal 2.

"Under current law, it is legal in Michigan for fertility clinics to discard human embryos but not to use them for medical research to try and help patients. That makes no sense," the paper said.

Beyond the scientific aspects, there is real concern about the effect defeating Proposal 2 would have on Michigan's economy. The state now has one of the most restrictive laws in the nation forbidding embryonic stem-cell research.

Barack Obama and Mr. McCain have indicated they would lift President Bush's restrictions on funding such research, but that will have no impact on Michigan unless Proposal 2 passes.

Dr. Sean Morrison, chief of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology, says he will "absolutely" lose some of his scientists to other, more progressive states if Proposal 2 fails. His work focuses on adult stem cells.

"But we very much need to do research on embryonic stem cells as well," he said. The few lines that were sanctioned by President Bush in 2001 are not sufficient, and have been contaminated with animal DNA, he said. Embryonic stem-cell research will go on in other states regardless of how Michigan votes, he noted.

The only real question may be whether Michigan is able to compete for the high-tech jobs of the future, or be content to be a scientific and economic backwater. Dr. Schwarz estimates that passing Proposal 2 would, by a conservative estimate, "add 8,000 jobs and $490 million to payrolls statewide, jobs badly needed in today's economy.

"The question comes down to this: Whom do you believe? Do we want cures or scares?" he asks. On Nov. 4, Michigan voters will decide.