Third Time’s the Harm

The third attempt to overturn a stem cell initiative in Missouri could be the most damaging to both science and the state.

Barely six weeks after Missouri voters passed the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative protecting stem cell research, opponents are already attempting to overturn the people’s decision. Two Missouri lawmakers announced today that they will ask the state legislature to put an amendment on the ballot in 2008 to repeal aspects of the initiative, the third attempt by opponents to defeat it.

Sen. Matt Bartle and Rep. Jim Lembke argue that the initiative is deceptive because it bans reproductive cloning but allows therapeutic cloning. In reproductive cloning, a cloned embryo is implanted and brought to term. Therapeutic cloning, also called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), creates an embryo by putting a human cell in an enucleated egg. Unlike with reproductive cloning, the embryo is never implanted and never gives rise to a human being. Scientists believe SCNT will be of great importance in finding cures for a whole host of diseases.

Despite the stark difference between human reproductive cloning and SCNT, Bartle and Lembke argue that voters actually wanted to ban this important research as well. Their argument is virtually identical to earlier efforts to oppose this legislation that failed in both the legal courts and the court of public opinion.

When the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative was first proposed, opponents challenged it in court, arguing that the ballot initiative was deceptively worded because it said it banned cloning but allowed for SCNT. The court quickly decided that the wording was not deceptive, calling it “sufficient, fair, and impartial.”

In the run-up to the election, opponents of the research again attempted to challenge the language of the initiative. Realizing they had no legal argument, they decided to take their case to the people themselves by airing a television ad against it. The ad, which featured local hero and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan and aired during a Cardinal’s World Series game, claimed that the initiative would allow for human cloning. Once again, opponents lost their case, as the voters of Missouri approved the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative two short weeks later.

Yet this third attempt by Bartle and Lembke to slow research is the most misguided so far. Not only does it follow in the footsteps of two failed efforts, but the proposed amendment itself is poorly worded and would end up prohibiting other promising types of research. The amendment proposes to ban attempts to “produce a human zygote, blastocyst or embryo” by any means other than the union of a sperm and an egg.

Parthenogenesis is one type of research that would be banned if the amendment passes. In parthenogenesis, unfertilized eggs are induced to begin cell division in order to provide stem cells. Scientists have used this process to obtain stem cells from mouse eggs, and although issues concerning the quality and genetic make-up of the cells mean this research is not a replacement for embryonic stem cell research, it is still a promising avenue of study. If the technique works, it may mean that a woman could use her own cells to treat her disease without fear of rejection by her immune system. A similar technique may be used with sperm for men who could be treated with cells containing their own DNA.

The continued and vocal opposition to the research also hurts Missouri’s ability to compete for scientists and private investors. The Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative was hailed by the science and business communities alike as a sign that Missouri wanted to become a biomedical research leader by establishing itself as a safe haven for research.

But this slapdash effort to oppose the initiative will squander this good will. Scientists and investors will be wary of moving into a state where vital research may be banned in two short years; concern that embryonic stem cell research would be criminalized have already slowed plans by the Stowers Institute to expand its facilities in Missouri and hire 600 new employees.

There is little reason for Missouri to revisit the provisions of the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative again. The ballot initiative was passed, its language was approved by both the court and the people, and the science continues to progress.

Duplicating the same failed arguments will be a tremendous waste of money—the first ballot campaign was the most expensive in Missouri’s history—and will slow medical research and economic development in the state. This is one kind of cloning we could all do without.

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Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow

Sam Berger

Former Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform