Mo’ News from MO: Stem Cells Surface Again

Opponents try to reverse the 2006 public mandate for stem cell research, but find there are a few kinks in their plan, writes Michael Rugnetta.

There have been some frustrating—albeit somewhat amusing—developments to come out of the Show Me State this past week. In late August, the anti-stem cell research group Cures Without Cloning proposed a new ballot initiative to ban embryonic stem cell research. This initiative would seek to repeal Amendment 2, which Missouri voters voted for in 2006 and which allows embryonic stem cell research while banning reproductive cloning.

CWC’s first draft of the amendment defined life as beginning “when an egg receives ‘a complete set of 46 chromosomes and continues through any subsequent stages of embryonic, fetal, postnatal and later development’” as quoted in the Columbia Missourian. The problem, of course, is that this definition excludes people with Down’s, Turner’s, and Kleinefelter’s Syndromes—conditions that result from having fewer than 46 chromosomes.

This in turn led to the vice chair of pediatrics at St. Louis Children’s Hospital—a stem cell research supporter—to decry the amendment for its reckless exclusion. CWC naturally refused to go down without a fight, calling this a political smoke screen, and vowing to improve its language.

CWC’s spokesman, Curt Mercadante, insists that Amendment 2 allows the kind of procedure that led to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. This is his way of distorting the facts about somatic cell nuclear transfer, the procedure used in embryonic stem cell research that merely creates a cloned embryo for research purposes. Reproductive cloning, which requires the cloned embryo to be planted in a woman’s womb, is still banned by Amendment 2.

On October 10, Missouri secretary of state Robin Carnahan released the following shrewdly worded ballot language for the proposed ballot question:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to repeal the current ban on human cloning or attempted cloning and to limit Missouri patients’ access to stem cell research, therapies and cures approved by voters in November 2006 by:

  • Redefining the ban on human cloning or attempted cloning to criminalize and impose civil penalties for some currently allowed research, therapies and cures; and
  • Prohibiting hospitals or other institutions from using public funds to conduct such research?

This proposal could have a significant negative fiscal impact on state and local governmental entities due to its prohibition of certain research activities. However, the total costs to state and local governmental entities are unknown.”

CWC was outraged by Secretary Carnahan’s statement because it does not intend to repeal the current ban on human reproductive cloning; it wants to add to it by banning research cloning as well. According to The Columbia Tribune’s Politics Blog, CWC does not, so far, have a specific response to the ballot language, but they do insist that “all options were on the table.”

In order to get this item—however it ends up being worded—on the ballot, CWC needs signatures from 8 percent of legal voters in six of Missouri’s nine congressional districts. However, as of October 10, it still needs approximately 145,000 signatures to get on the 2008 ballot.

Even more embarrassing for CWC is their 20-day lateness in reporting their campaign finances, which only amounted to $20.34. They reported no expenditures. This raises many questions, such as how they managed to obtain a P.O. Box without paying for it or receiving it as an in-kind contribution. Nevertheless, The Kansas City Star reports that CWC intended only to issue the report as a placeholder until they issue their quarterly report on October 15.

Democratic State Senator Chuck Graham still fears that the issue is going to get ugly. He emphasizes that although the pro-stem cell campaign was successful in passing Amendment 2 last year, it was only a narrow victory. Indeed it only passed with a 51 percent majority. Graham maintains that the pro-stem cell campaign was well-funded but not well-run because it was too academic and not political enough. In Graham’s estimation, the new ballot item has a “better than 50 percent chance” of appearing on the November 2008 ballot due to energetic support from religious organizations like the Catholic Church.

Graham also discussed tactics that the pro-stem cell movement could use such as talking to people about possible cures and getting the business community involved, because ultimately, he believes this issue “is about having a culture in this state where the brightest minds from around the country and around the world feel like they can come here and conduct their research.”

The University of Missouri system’s interim president Gordon Lamb also issued a statement criticizing the ballot initiative as trying to undermine the university’s mission as a research institution, proclaiming that “[i]t is antithetical to the principles on which the university as a whole is founded, and on which the University of Missouri was founded.”

Indeed, if CWC manages to successfully stifle scientific inquiry, progress, and prosperity for the sake of energizing a reactionary faction of voters, they will have achieved something antithetical to the principles on which this entire nation was founded.

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