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Reflecting on South Dakota’s stem cell research ban

Regardless of your position on stem cell research, there’s one thing South Dakotans don’t have to worry about as a result of President Obama ending restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research. No money for or research using embryonic stem cells will be here.

Nearly 18 months before President Bush restricted funding for stem cell research, South Dakota’s legislature made it illegal to conduct “nontherapeutic research” that destroys a human embryo or “subjects a human embryo to substantial risk of injury or death.” The laws undoubtedly include embryonic stem cell research. They define “nontherapeutic research” as research “not intended to help preserve the life and health of the particular embryo” and, for purposes of these laws, a human embryo includes even the “the single-celled stage” of embryonic development if not located in a woman’s body.

The bill faced few problems, passing in its final form 52-14 in the House and 34-1 in the Senate. Yet not only did it come before Bush restricted federal funding, it came before T. Denny Sanford donated $400 million to create the Sanford Project. That project has since announced that its focus will be seeking a cure for Type 1 diabetes with an emphasis on beta cell regeneration.

Will the embryonic stem cell research ban impact that project? The biology is certainly beyond me but it appears stem cell research is not the only route to investigating beta cell regeneration as a potential cure. There also seems to be differing opinions even among stem cell researchers on whether embryonic or adult stem cells are more suitable for this approach. But even with South Dakota precluding embryonic stem cell research, it may not close it down as a field of investigation for the Sanford Project.

It put a research center at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Cal. Notably, in 2004 California voters approved a Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative intended to provide $3 billion for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the director of the Sanford research center at Burnham also has a “secondary appointment” to Burnham’s Stem Cell Biology and Regeneration Program.

There’s undoubtedly strong feelings on both sides of the embryonic stem cell research debate. And the Legislature couldn’t have known that such research might actually become significant to medicine and science in South Dakota. Yet you do wonder if the result would be different if the question had not been debated in the abstract but with knowledge that it would lead to sending high tech medical research and jobs to California instead of here.


We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.

Carl Sagan, 1994, quoted in
Conversations with Carl Sagan

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1 comment to Reflecting on South Dakota’s stem cell research ban

  • It appears that not a great deal of thought was put into consideration of legislation banning stem cells when it was first considered by the S. Dakota legislature. The bills sponsors were obviously acting on behalf of the various churches who have – for specious reasons and often in opposition to the sentiments of their congregations – mobilized against this type of research.

    I have Parkinson’s disease which, because it may be caused by pesticides is a major problem in non-urban areas where pesticides are used. Embryonic Stem Cell Research seeks a way to use stem cells to replace the dopaminergic neurons that have died in my brain so that I cannot control movement in my limbs and the function of other bodily systems. Unfortunately for a person my age, George Bush, some churches and – regrettably the South Dakota legislature have put the cure beyond my lifetime. But millions of other people can benefit if the ban is lifted – people with Parkinson’s, type one diabetes and spinal cord injuries among many other diseases.

    As you point out, scientists are not the best people to communicate their need for support to the public. Science has always been suspicious of media, politicians and religion who prefer uncritical statements of “fact” to the kind of questioning, analytical demands of science’s doubting Thomases. I hope that when legislation is next considered by the SD legislature, legislators and senators will be better informed so that the ban on embryonic stem cell research will be lifted and scientists there can start working – out of true respect for life – on terrible diseases that affect millions of men, women and children around the world.