JEFFERSON CITY, MO. -- With voters across Missouri likely to consider a proposed constitutional amendment soon, the debate over embryonic stem-cell research is emerging as one of the top statewide political issues in 2006.
Just don't expect much of that conversation to occur in the state Capitol.
As lawmakers prepare for Wednesday's start of the legislative session, five different bills dealing with the use of human embryos for scientific research already have been filed.
Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, who for the past several years has unsuccessfully sponsored efforts to outlaw a form a stem-cell research known as therapeutic cloning, said he plans to introduce a similar measure in the coming legislative session.
But with the prospect of a statewide ballot measure in November 2006 and fresh memories of a bitter debate in 2005 that divided the Republican-controlled legislature, bill sponsors and party leaders alike predict that the silence on stem cells could be deafening.
"It's such a hard issue to get your hands on that that's probably not going to produce any results in the legislature this year," said House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill.
Unlike last year, when his original bill sought criminal penalties for therapeutic cloning, Bartle said he will instead seek to levy civil fines against those who practice such research, which is also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer.
The procedure involves removing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg and replacing it with an adult cell, which is then stimulated to grow as an embryo. Resulting stem cells are removed for use by researchers who hope they can provide treatments for ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cancer and spinal cord injuries.
Bartle, though, expects the results to be the same as last year, when his proposal stalled in the Senate and never made it to the House.
"The reality is, everybody in Jefferson City knows this is not going to go anywhere," he said. "The legislature lacked the political courage to take a vote on this issue. I don't think the legislature is going to be any more lionhearted this year -- especially in an election year."
Bartle suggested the initiative effort to legally protect stem-cell research and treatments "guarantees that the legislature will do virtually nothing this year."
That's just what supporters of the effort hope for. After all, the specter of stem-cell sanctions are the primary force behind the push for a statewide ballot measure, said Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for LifeSaving Cures, a group of business leaders, patient advocates and researchers.
"We certainly are not encouraging the kind of battles that took place last year in the legislature," he said.
Supporters of the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative must collect about 145,000 valid signatures by May 9 to secure a spot on the November ballot.
First, they must persuade a Cole County judge to accept the title and proposed ballot wording that would "ban human cloning." The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund has sued Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Auditor Claire McCaskill on behalf of several Missouri residents who oppose embryonic stem-cell research.
The lawsuit calls the ballot measure -- and its purported ban on human cloning -- misleading because, opponents say, embryonic stem-cell research involves creating human life to destroy it.
A hearing on the legal challenge is set for Jan. 19 in Jefferson City. McCaskill was dropped as a named defendant at the request of the Alliance Defense Fund.
David LaPlante, an Olathe, Kan., attorney who represents the group, declined to discuss its reasons for dropping McCaskill.
The expected lack of sustained legislative debate on stem-cell research is drawing fire from church groups and pro-life activists such as Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference. He accused Jetton and other legislative leaders of "abdicating their responsibility."
"The speaker had a constitutional duty to bring it to the floor," said Weber, referring to the 2005 session. "It's impossible for the House to address serious legislation if the speaker of the House is going to stymie all debate."
Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, is sponsoring a stem-cell constitutional amendment should the petition drive falter. He suggested that the 2005 debate opened wounds that Republican lawmakers and Gov. Matt Blunt -- a Republican who supports certain forms of embryonic stem-cell research -- want to heal, not pour salt in.
"It divides their constituencies right down the middle," he said. "They would like to avoid it altogether."
Associated Press Writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.
* Senate Bill 706. Permits embryonic stem cell research, including somatic cell nuclear transfer. Public money can be used for such research. Sponsor: Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City.
* Senate Joint Resolution 30. Proposes a constitutional amendment that bans human reproductive cloning and protects embryonic stem cell research and treatments. Language mirrors ballot initiative sought for November 2006 by Missouri Coalition for LifeSaving Cures. Sponsor: Chuck Graham, D-Columbia.
* House Bill 1042. Prohibits human cloning, excluding somatic cell nuclear transfer. Calls for creation of a 10-member Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer Commission that would investigate its "medical, scientific, ethical and legal consequences." Sponsor: Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.
* House Bill 1113. Prohibits state money for somatic cell nuclear transfer and other forms of human embryonic stem cell research. Sponsor: Belinda Harris, D-Hillsboro.