Lawsuit seeks to stop stem-cell ballot initiative

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research are suing Missouri's secretary of state to try to block an initiative protecting stem-cell research from appearing on the 2006 ballot.

The lawsuit alleges the title of the proposed constitutional amendment is "unfair and deceptive" by claiming to "ban human cloning or attempted human cloning" when actually allowing a contentious cloning procedure. The lawsuit announced Monday by the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund was filed Wednesday in Cole County Circuit Court. It seeks an injunction barring state officials from placing the issue before voters.

Supporters of stem-cell research already have been cleared by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office to start gathering the roughly 150,000 petition signatures needed to get their measure on the ballot. The proposal would guarantee that federally allowed stem-cell research and treatments could occur in Missouri. It also would ban human cloning, which it defines as the effort to create a baby by implanting an embryo that was not fertilized by sperm into a woman's uterus.

But the proposal would allow what's known as therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer. In that procedure, the nucleus of an egg is replaced with the nucleus from something such as a skin or nerve cell. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish, and researchers remove the resulting stem cells.

The lawsuit asserts the procedure results in a cloned human embryo and that the ballot proposal deceptively attempts to rewrite the definition of human cloning.

"If the people of Missouri are going to vote on this issue, they should at least be given a fair chance to vote their conscience on matters of life and death," David LaPlante, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a written statement. "The voters deserve to know that the proposed ballot initiative would create a constitutional right to treat human life as a commodity and raw material for unethical human experimentation"

The Alliance Defense Fund's Web site says it pursues cases "protecting religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values."

The lead plaintiff is a Jefferson City-based group called Missourians Against Human Cloning, incorporated Nov. 17 by Larry Weber, the executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, which opposes the ballot initiative.

Weber did not immediately return telephone calls Monday.

Five individuals also are plaintiffs: David and Sarah Mason, of St. Joseph; William Biermann of Barnhart; Tammy Coleman, of Raytown; and Mary Weber, of Mokane. The lawsuit says some plaintiffs suffer from injuries or diseases.

Supporters of early stem cell research hope it can lead to a cure for ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cancer and spinal cord injuries.

The ballot measure is backed by a group of researchers and patient advocacy groups called the Missouri Coalition for LifeSaving Cures, which as of mid-October already had raised nearly $3.3 million. The group began running television advertisements Nov. 18 urging people to sign its petitions.

Coalition spokeswoman Connie Farrow said the lawsuit has no merit. But she said initiative supporters likely will wait until the legal challenge is resolved to begin gathering petition signatures.

"Basically, this lawsuit appears to be a public relations ploy led by an out-of-state organization," Farrow said.

The secretary of state's office defended its ballot title summary of the initiative.

"State law requires the secretary of state to write ballot language that isn't likely to create prejudice either for or against a proposed measure," said Carnahan spokesman Mike Seitz. "We're confident the language for this initiative is fair and complies with the state law."

The lawsuit also challenges the ballot measure's cost estimate approved by State Auditor Claire McCaskill's office as being insufficient. The suit claims the initiative would restrict the ability of government officials to eliminate, cut or withhold money appropriated in connection with embryonic stem cell research.

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