Mo. group advocates stem-cell amendment

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The constitutional change, which Gov. Matt Blunt supports, would ensure that stem-cell research allowed under federal law would also be permitted in Missouri.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A coalition of researchers and patient groups proposed a constitutional amendment Tuesday to protect stem cell research and treatment in Missouri, where anti-abortion activists have tried to outlaw a particular form of the research.

The proposal targeted for the November 2006 ballot would ensure that stem-cell research, therapies and cures allowed under federal law also are permitted in Missouri. It also would ensure that an already-contentious debate at the Capitol would continue to rage through next year's elections.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt quickly lent his support to the initiative while the state's largest anti-abortion groups denounced it.

At issue is a form of early stem cell research known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, in which the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus of a cell from another body part. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow, and the resulting stem cells are harvested.

Stem cells can potentially develop into any type of human tissue. Researchers hope those stem cells can lead to cures for ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cancer and spinal cord injuries. Opponents contend the procedure destroys human life.

The Missouri Coalition for Life-Saving Cures was formed to fight legislative efforts earlier this year to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as "therapeutic cloning." That bill stalled in the Senate without reaching a vote, but the bill's sponsor has pledged to make another attempt next year.

That prompted the coalition to mount its own offensive.

Opponents want to "criminalize some of the most promising types of stem-cell research," said coalition chairman Donn Rubin. "We believe that a constitutional amendment is necessary to protect Missouri's patients."

To make the ballot, the initiative needs the signatures of at least 139,181 voters from across the state. Constitutional amendments require a simple majority of voters to be enacted. They supersede any state laws.

The Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which supports the Missouri initiative, said it would be the first ballot issue nationally to specifically protect the rights of patients to be treated with embryonic stem cell procedures.

Californians approved a constitutional amendment last year that will provide $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research. Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey have taken steps to provide public funding for the research without going to the ballot.

The Missouri proposal does not commit any money for stem cell research. But it prohibits state and local governments from denying money to those who do the research.

The coalition's leaders include the founders of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, medical professionals from the University of Missouri and Washington University, and former U.S. Sens. John Danforth and Thomas Eagleton. Also on board are associations that fight specific diseases, such as the American Diabetes Association and the Parkinson's Action Network.

One of the leading opponents of therapeutic cloning is Missouri Right to Life, which vowed Tuesday to continue pushing for a ban in the Legislature and predicted voters would defeat the amendment.

"The biotech industry is seeking to minimize human life for economic purposes," said Missouri Right to Life Lobbyist Susan Klein. "They're trying to redefine when life begins."

Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research also contend it is unnecessary. The Missouri Catholic Conference said adult stem-cell research -- supported by the anti-abortion lobby -- has led to 65 treatments for such things as Parkinson's disease, heart damage and sickle cell anemia.

"We think Missouri voters are being sold a pig in a poke by folks who can't get their money elsewhere," said Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.

The anti-abortion groups and the research organization both say they oppose human cloning. The proposed constitutional amendment includes a 15-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine for anyone who attempts to clone a human being, which it defines as implanting an embryo not created by sperm and an egg into a woman's uterus.

Missouri Right to Life contends that somatic cell nuclear transfer is human cloning, even though the created embryo is not implanted in a woman's uterus.

The distinction has divided Missouri's self-described "pro-life" politicians. Blunt, for example, supports somatic cell nuclear transfer -- believing it doesn't create human life -- although he generally aligns with Missouri Right to Life on abortion issues.

"The governor is supportive of this petition. He believes this is a step forward in banning human cloning and protecting responsible research," Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said.

Danforth also trumpeted his "pro-life" credentials while backing the amendment.

"During my entire career, I voted pro-life," Danforth said in a statement. "I strongly support the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative because it will save lives and because it respects the sanctity of life."

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