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Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Missouri vote may point to stem cell future


Is embryonic stem cell research a “pro-life” issue, where protection of human life at its earliest stages is politically akin to such popularly backed measures as requiring parental notification before a teenager can undergo an abortion? Or is it another type of “pro-life” issue, one that gives the visible medical needs of diabetics, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease sufferers priority over fertilized eggs in petri dishes?

Thanks to an upcoming ballot initiative, voters in strongly pro-life Missouri will have a say on the matter.

It’s one thing for California’s largely liberal voters, despite opposition from Catholic leaders and the state’s antiabortion lobby, to approve $3 billion in spending over 10 years on embryonic stem cell research, as they did in November 2004. And state funding for similar programs in the bright blue Democratic states of New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland says little about national sentiment on the issue.

But conservative Missouri, home to a governor and two senators who consistently oppose abortion rights and where the moniker “Democrat” does not automatically equal “pro-choice,” is the electoral laboratory for a political experiment: an effort to extinguish the link in the public mind between abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

This November, Missouri citizens will vote yes or no on the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, an amendment to the state’s constitution that will allow, with some restrictions, stem cell research and access to stem cell therapies and cures.

“The country is watching and we are aware of it because this is a conservative pro-life state,” says Jaci Winship, executive director of Missourians Against Human Cloning. “If it passed here, someone will try it real soon in a state near you,” Winship told NCR.

Nationally, the antiabortion movement is splintered over embryonic stem cell research. Such pro-life groups as the National Right to Life Committee, the American Life League, Concerned Women for America and the U.S. Catholic bishops say the destruction of embryos that is inherent in the research is the moral equivalent of aborting an unborn child.

“Every human life, from the first moment of existence until natural death, deserves our respect and protection,” Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the House Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space in late 2004. It’s a message Doerflinger and other church spokespersons have repeated in countless forums.

“Human life has intrinsic dignity, not only a relative or instrumental value; thus every living member of the human species, including the human embryo, must be treated with the respect due to a human person,” Doerflinger told the House panel. He compared embryonic stem cell research to Nazi-era medical experimentation, syphilis experiments conducted more than 40 years on Alabama sharecroppers, the direct injection of the hepatitis virus in the 1960s into children living at a home for the mentally retarded, and U.S. government studies of military personnel and others unwittingly exposed to radiation from nuclear tests.

But others with strong antiabortion credentials say their support for embryonic stem-cell research is evidence of their pro-life commitment. Such pro-life stalwarts as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (author of the early 1980s “Human Life Amendment”) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative doctor with his eye on the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, support federal funding on embryonic stem cell research.

“After much thought, reflection and prayer, I concluded that life begins in, and requires, a nurturing womb,” Hatch told his Senate colleagues during a July 18 debate. “Human life does not begin in a petri dish,” said Hatch. He continued, “I do not question that an embryo is a living cell. But I do not believe that a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic freezer constitutes human life.”

The following day, Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded funding for embryonic stem cell research beyond the limited research he approved in August 2001. Under the vetoed legislation, said Bush, “American taxpayers for the first time in our history would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. Crossing this line would be a grave mistake and would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both and harm our nation as a whole.”

Earlier that week, Bush spokesman Tony Snow used another term to describe embryonic stem cell research.

“The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it’s inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder; he’s one of them,” Snow told a White House press briefing. Several days later Snow retracted the comment, saying he “overstepped his brief” and “murder” is not a characterization the president would use.

Rhetoric among supporters of the federal funding measure was equally heated. New York Sen. Charles Schumer took issue with those who oppose federal funding. “The trouble with this group, which I call the theocrats, is they want their faith to dictate what the government does. That, in a word, is un-American. That is exactly what the Founding Fathers put down their plows and took up muskets to fight,” said Schumer.

The Show-Me state debate is not, strictly speaking, about state funding. But that doesn’t mean the discussion is any less heated.

Amendment opponents view themselves as grass-roots Davids battling the establishment Goliath. And they’ve got a point.

Missouri’s mainstream political and business establishment is strongly behind the initiative. The state’s pro-life governor, Matt Blunt, backs the constitutional amendment, as does the state Chamber of Commerce and its affiliates in St. Louis and Kansas City. The long list of patient-advocacy groups backing the ballot measure includes such motherhood-and-apple-pie nonprofits as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the National Parkinson Foundation. The bulk of the millions of dollars supporters are spending to promote the initiative come from James and Virginia Stowers, founders of a Kansas City-based nonprofit research institute.

And not least among the supporters are the Danforth brothers, William and Jack. Heirs to the Ralston Purina fortune, William Danforth served as chancellor of St. Louis’ Washington University for nearly 25 years, while Jack Danforth, a three-term Republican senator from Missouri, former U.N. ambassador and the ordained Episcopal priest who presided at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, serves as honorary cochair of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. The younger Danforth is known, admiringly by some and derisively by others, as “Saint Jack.”

“My entire political career I voted pro-life,” the former senator says in a widely viewed television advertisement in support of the ballot measure. “And that is exactly why I favor the stem cell initiative. I believe in saving human life.” In another ad, Danforth notes that the initiative “would outlaw any effort to try to clone human beings.”

Initiative supporters say they wish it had never come to this.

“For the last several years we’ve had some politicians in [the state capitol] Jefferson City who have been proposing that we criminalize and ban some promising forms of stem cell research as well as therapies and potential cures,” said Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. “Because of that, the coalition came together and the only way to make sure [prohibitions on research] don’t happen is to have a constitutional amendment.”

Said Rubin, “If people understand we’re talking about microscopic cells in a laboratory dish that are never to be part of a pregnancy, that have the ability to be implanted back in the patient and cure that patient’s illness, then I believe we’ll be successful.”

Rubin hits on the key issue: Are the “microscopic cells in a laboratory dish” simply that, or are the fertilized eggs that contain those cells worthy of the law’s protection?

Some of those embryos exist as leftovers -- excess fertilized eggs developed as a result of in vitro fertilization procedures. They are the focus of the federal funding debate.

And while it’s true that much of the research authorized by the state initiative would employ those embryos, it’s another procedure -- somatic cell nuclear transfer -- that has opponents of the constitutional amendment particularly energized. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is human cloning, say the opponents; supporters of the amendment say, in Rubin’s words, that such a definition of what proponents terms “therapeutic cloning” is “ridiculous.”

Somatic cell nuclear transfer, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, “involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell, replacing it with the material from the nucleus of a ‘somatic cell’ (a skin, heart, or nerve cell, for example), and stimulating this cell to begin dividing. Once the cell begins dividing, stem cells can be extracted five to six days later and used for research.” The end product, say the procedure’s critics, is a cloned human embryo -- a life created for experimental purposes that if implanted and nurtured would grow into a fully developed human being.

The union of the somatic cell and the unfertilized egg equals conception, said Winship, and that “is a line in the sand.” Winship said, “The only [definition of when life begins] that is scientific, that makes sense, and that is biblical is that life begins at conception.”

How far apart are the two sides? Even the name of the initiative was contested. Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn and other opponents of the amendment argued earlier this year that the initiative’s title, the “Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative,” and the summary that will appear on the ballot were deceptive. Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder disagreed, calling the language “sufficient, fair, accurate and impartial.” That ruling was upheld by the state’s Supreme Court in May.

The simmering debate has since boiled over.

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke told an Aug. 29 anti-amendment rally that passage of the ballot measure would allow for “the legalized destruction of human life.” A week earlier, conservative Catholic pundit Alan Keyes told amendment opponents that the type of research envisioned by the amendment is “the moral equivalent of Nazi medical experiments on the inmates of death camps during World War II.”

Finn urged diocesan priests to preach against the amendment. “This deceptively worded measure claims to be a ban on human cloning, but is exactly the opposite,” he wrote in a letter published in the Sept. 1 Catholic Key , the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan newspaper. “It would create a new constitutional right to clone human embryos and destroy them for their stem cells -- a Roe v. Wade of human cloning, if you will,” he continued. “Far from banning the cloning process, it would authorize that practice but prohibit any effort to allow cloned humans to survive and be born -- thus defining, for the first time in our state’s history, a class of fellow human beings it is a crime not to destroy by a certain stage.”

Politically, Democrats see embryonic stem cell research as a winning issue, one that could even tip control of the U.S. Senate. Nearly 60 percent of Missouri voters support the initiative, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll released Sept. 3.

Missouri Sen. James Talent, a pro-lifer in a tough re-election race against initiative supporter Claire McCaskill, has waffled on the issue. He recently came out against the initiative, but with a decided ambivalence.

“I personally cannot support the initiative because I’ve always been opposed to human cloning and this measure would make cloning human life at the earliest stage a constitutional right,” Talent said in a statement. “I would encourage every Missourian to study the initiative carefully and make up their own minds on this very difficult moral issue.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

Stem cell research on the ballot

The following is the official ballot title for the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The full text of the amendment can be found at

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to allow and set limitations on stem cell research, therapies, and cures which will:

  • ensure Missouri patients have access to any therapies and cures, and allow Missouri researchers to conduct any research, permitted under federal law;
  • ban human cloning or attempted cloning;
  • require expert medical and public oversight and annual reports on the nature and purpose of stem cell research;
  • impose criminal and civil penalties for any violations; and
  • prohibit state or local governments from preventing or discouraging lawful stem cell research, therapies and cures.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have an estimated annual fiscal impact on state and local governments of $0-$68,916.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

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