Stem cell ballot language upheld

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A state appeals court on Tuesday affirmed a lower court's ruling upholding the language of a ballot proposal to protect stem cell research.

Opponents of the proposed amendment argue the language could lead voters to be deceived into approving human cloning for research purposes.

Supporters counter that the language summarizing the initiative accurately explains that the amendment would ban human cloning.

They say the amendment would guarantee that all stem cell research allowed by the federal government could occur in Missouri.

The dispute boils down to what constitutes a life. The proposal would allow a type of cloning called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In that procedure, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is removed and replaced with that of another cell, such as a skin cell. The resulting egg is stimulated to divide, then the cells are harvested.

Supporters hope the new cells could lead to cures for many diseases. Opponents say the procedure creates and then destroys a human life.

The case moved to the Missouri Court of Appeals after Cole County Senior Judge Byron Kinder ruled Jan. 19 that the ballot is "sufficient and fair and the language is neutral."

The appeals court found that while opponents who challenged the ballot summary argued it was unfair, they agreed that the summary matches the ballot language.

As such, the court said, they can take issue with the ballot proposal's definition of human cloning, but not with the secretary of state's summary of it.

"While appellants may disagree with the initiative's definition of human cloning, that alone does not make the summary inaccurate," according to the appeals court opinion written by Judge Victor Howard. "... In effect, appellants want us to revise the summary to highlight the underlying controversy surrounding the merits of the initiative. Resolution of that controversy must be left to the political process."

For the initiative to go to a statewide vote in November, supporters must gather about 145,000 petition signatures from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts.

The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented residents who challenged the ballot summary language, said it was considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court or to wait and challenge the proposal once it gets on the ballot.

"We believe voters have the right not to be deceived," attorney Joel Oster said.

The Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures said it was pleased with the ruling and that its signature-gathering efforts are going well.

"What's important is that there's a summary that fairly captures what is in the Missouri stem cell initiative because we know that most Missourians support what the initiative will do, which is ensure that Missouri patients and Missouri institutions will be treated equally," chairman Donn Rubin said.

The court also said the law doesn't require that the summary be the best possible phrasing, simply that it be fair and sufficient.

Judge James Smart dissented in part, saying the term cloning should be clarified when it gets to the ballot, though he would allow the ballot summary to remain as supporters gather signatures.

"The ballot summary, standing alone, does not provide sufficient reference or context to clarify the meaning of the phrase and will tend to mislead those who are philosophically opposed to all nuclear transfer," the judge wrote.


On the Net:

The case is WD66495.

Courts: http://www.courts.mo.gov

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