OKLAHOMA COURAGE: Governor Brad Henry and Chamber of Commerce Take Stand For Stem Cells

By Don C. Reed

Imagine you are Brad Henry, Governor of Oklahoma—a Democrat in a state as overwhelmingly Republican as California is Democratic—and you are a strong supporter of stem cell research.

Now, Governor, you have just been handed a bill: Senate Bill 1326.

The bill would criminalize embryonic stem cell research.

You have three choices: sign the bill into law, let it become law without your signature, or reject it by a veto.

What would you do? Remember, SB 1326 would actually make the research a crime, so scientists would be arrested for trying for a cure for disease or disability.

First, probably, you would study the odds: see what armies you were up against.
The bill, SB 1326, is backed by the Religious Right, one of the strongest power sources of the Republican party.

And how is the law doing so far?

It passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives by a staggering margin: 82 votes in favor of criminalization: only 6 to protect the research. The Senate? 38-9.

If you veto it, Governor, there will be an orchestrated firestorm of anger—and perhaps political retaliation, maybe blocking some other bills you want to see become law—and the bill is almost certain to pass anyway…

Remember, with a 2/3 majority, (68 in the House, where they got 82, and 32 votes in the Senate, where they got 38) SB 1326 will become law—overriding your signature.

What would you do?

Sign the bill, knowing it was going to pass anyway, and you might get some political credit from the ultra-conservatives?

Veto the bill, infuriating the opposition, which will immediately re-submit the bill for a veto over-ride anyway?

Or let the bill become law without your signature, so at least your friends know you did not approve?

Those were the options the real-life Governor Brad Henry faced, just a few days ago, in the Governor’s office, in Oklahoma.

Now, the man is not without political courage. He could not be where he is without being willing to buck the tide. But no politician wants to stand alone. Without political backup, Governor Henry’s options were extremely limited.

In that state’s entire House of Representatives, only one Republican was willing to vote in support of the embryonic stem cell research which President Obama supports.

“We don’t want to cut off research on cells that are going to be discarded,” said emergency room doctor Rep. Doug Cox (R-Grove)—Tim Talley, AP, 3/24/09

He was referring to the fact that embryonic stem cell lines are made from cells already scheduled for destruction. These are the microscopic blastocysts left over from In Vitro Fertility procedures. There are roughly half a million currently frozen.

The other Republicans, however, seemed to be having a contest to see who could talk the most trash, referring to embryonic stem cell research as “killing babies”, “harvesting children”, and other biological falsehoods.

Common sense makes clear the fallacy in their argument. It is impossible for a baby to be born without the involvement of his or her mother. Without a sheltering womb, there can no child. Unless implanted in a womb, a blastocyst can never become a child.

Embryonic stem cell research is cells, cells, nothing but cells: essentially invisible dots in a dish.

“This is about using embryos that are currently frozen in banks that are going to be destroyed and thrown away,” said Roy Williams, President of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

But facts and reason do not always sway voters. Emotion does.

In my minds eye, I see Governor Henry at his desk, considering. The pen is before him, in its little marble block. It would be so easy to just shrug, and sign the bill, or let it pass into law without his signature.

And then, everything changed. Somebody stood up, and said: don’t sign that bill.

Who was it? Scientists? Advocates? Some were involved, of course. Wherever there are patients willing to be counted, they or their families will become advocates, fighting for themselves, or their loved ones. Universities also are increasingly willing to speak up.
But these were expected, and accounted for.

This was something new.

It was the Chamber of Commerce, traditional source of Republican power. And no small chamber, either; these were the two largest cities in the state: Oklahoma City, (population 506, 132, US census 2000) and Tulsa (population 393,049); the next largest city is less than one-fourth their size: Norman, with a population of 95,694..

“The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber has been working for more than 10 years to create a national image of Oklahoma as a center of bioscience research,” said Mark Funke, vice chair of bioscience for the chamber. “For our state to pass the most restrictive stem cell law in the country would be detrimental to recruiting scientists to our state, hampering our ability to reap the economic benefits can have in Oklahoma.”—Randy Ellis, April 19, 2009, www.newsok.com

Why should embryonic stem cell research be protected?

“With the medical and research infrastructure in place, this would be an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the future,” said Tulsa Metro Chamber President Mike Neal…The chamber points out that healthcare is considered to be one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and banning embryonic stem cell research may mean fewer jobs for Oklahomans in the future.”—Chris Wright, News on 6, Apr. 23, 2009

When it comes to business, no group is more respected than the Chamber of Commerce—because it is made up of the businessmen and women themselves.

These are loyal Republicans, tried and true– members of a party which in last year’s Presidential campaign pledged to criminalize embryonic stem cell research.

But they also have families. They know what it is like to see a loved one suffer, and to feel helpless to ease their pain.

They know that inability to pay medical costs is ruining families– and businesses—unable to afford health insurance.

And one thing more. These are the leaders of business. Unless the Republican party is going to disavow free enterprise, they need to consider the wishes of the people at the wheel of the engine which drives our economy. Who better to raise the issue of jobs?

The biomedical revolution is not only a gift of life; it may also keep food on a family’s table. This matters. Business has a right—and a responsibility– to raise this point.

Governor Brad Henry vetoed the bill. He issued a statement, saying: “I don’t think this bill is consistent with Oklahoma values, and I cannot approve it in good conscience.”

He also thanked the “Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa Metro Chamber and all the health care advocates for working to cut through misconceptions and educate people about the dire consequences of this bill. They have been unjustly and unfairly criticized for their principled stand, and I think they deserve praise.”

Then came the reaction: furious words, untrammeled by truth, accusations of baby-killing, child-harvesting, and other vile inaccuracies—attacking not only Governor Henry, but also the Chamber of Commerce– impugning the motives of those who had taken a stand in favor of research for cure.

SB 1326 author Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) said of the Chamber:

“If these people value money more than human life, then they need to find another state, or even another country.”

Forgotten were the thousands of times the Chamber had stood up for free enterprise, supporting the Republican party’s position with almost 100% regularity.

This was the Chamber of Commerce, and they were being told, they were not welcome in their own home state?

That may have been part of the reason for what came next.

Remember, a 2/3 majority in both houses would pass the law, criminalizing the research, no matter what the Governor wanted.

And when the votes were counted?

The House of Representatives voted to override the Governor’s veto, so the bill to criminalize the research would pass, and become law.

But– instead of 82-6, this time the vote was 68-26. They got what they needed, but just barely, and the House is more conservative than the Senate.

Suddenly, there was a flicker of hope.

The Senate.

In the Oklahoma Senate, 32 votes were required to override. On the first vote, 38 had sided with the anti-research effort.

But the ground had shifted.

This time, the vote was 26 to 19. The Governor’s veto was not over-ridden.

Embryonic stem cell research is still legal in Oklahoma.

On behalf of my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, and the millions of American families who endure chronic disease and disability, I want to stay a special thank you to Governor Brad Henry. Thank you, Chamber of Commerce.

One day, I believe my son will fulfill Christopher Reeve’s great prediction, and rise up from his wheelchair, and walk away from it forever.

And when that happens, we will remember, that one of those first steps was taken in Oklahoma.

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