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Stem cell issue on costly trek toward ballot

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:06 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

If you’ve spent any time in Missouri since January, then you’ve probably been approached by petitioners gathering signatures. They are working to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to protect stem cell research. They have until May 9 to gather the 150,000 signatures needed to put this issue to a vote.

For the group behind the measure, the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, the process has been a long one, and it has been fraught with controversy. Last November, executive director Donn Rubin received word that the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group, was suing his group, claiming that the language in the amendment was deceptive and misleading. The lawsuit required petitioners to stop collecting signatures. “Our opponents have shown themselves willing to do just about anything to keep this from getting on the ballot,” Rubin said.

Though the lawsuit alarmed Rubin and his staff, they were more concerned with building their coalition. The lawsuit came only about a month after they had received approval from the secretary of state about the initiative’s wording.

“The litigation was a reflection of the aggressive efforts of opponents, and an example of organized efforts to confuse and mislead voters,” Rubin said.

Getting it on the ballot

Ultimately, a Cole County judge decided in favor of the coalition, and members were able to resume collecting signatures. Since the end of January, the group has sent hundreds of petitioners across the state, and they have almost reached the required minimum. Rubin said the coalition can collect thousands of signatures a day. Explaining the issue to voters has been relatively easy , Rubin said, and it has made gathering the signatures less of a hurdle to getting the issue on the ballot.

If the amendment is approved, any stem cell research allowable under federal law will be protected under Missouri law.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, current federal law holds that federally funded research may be conducted on embryonic stem cell lines created before August 2001.

The campaign has been fairly expensive. Rubin said the coalition has easily raised large amounts of money. Supporters like James and Virginia Stowers, who founded the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, have donated more than $4 million. The coalition’s last report to the Missouri Ethics Commission indicated it had raised nearly $7 million and had $650,000 on hand.

Groups on the other side have not raised nearly as much. Missourians Against Human Cloning is one of the main critics of the initiative, and it has been trying to curb the coalition’s efforts from the beginning. The group considered proposing a counter amendment but stopped short because of the cost.

“It’s a very expensive process, and we think the funds could better served by getting the truth out,” said Jaci Winship, executive director of MAHC.

To date, MAHC, which has teamed up with the Missouri Catholic Conference, has raised $140,000 and had $92,000 on hand.

Objections to the amendment

Working with the Alliance Defense Fund, the MAHC sued the coalition, claiming that the amendment language is deceptive.

“Where the amendment is misleading is when they say that it bans human cloning,” Winship said. “Reproductive cloning is banned, but not the cloning of human embryos.”

Diana Schaub, a member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, agreed with the assessment of the amendment wording at a symposium held last month at MU. Schaub said that banning cloning procedures that produce children is a good idea, but that she disapproved of leading voters to think that embryonic stem cell research by means of somatic cell nuclear transfer is not cloning.

MAHC also claims that the amendment is misleading when it says that it will not create any new public funding. According to Winship, the research is currently legal, but no new money has been allocated for it, and there is also not much private money available.

“The only way to fund it is with state money,” Winship said. “They will go through the state legislature for funding, and they will tell the legislature that they cannot allocate money only for adult stem cell research.”

Rubin calls this a flat-out lie.

“They’ve created false claims, and even their own lawyer has said that this claim was untrue,” Rubin said.

A quick look at the amendment language, however, reveals that both sides are right. The fiscal impact on the state and local governments is estimated to be between $0 and $68,000. Based on this, it’s difficult to say what the impact will be, but amendment supporters say that even at a cost of $68,000 the state can certainly afford it.

Besides wording-based objections to the amendment, there are moral ones. Critics of embryonic stem cell research say the practice is unethical and disrespects life.

“All life is worthy of respect,” said Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference. “There is no exception for life, even if it is created in a laboratory.”

Political Fallout

This issue has created heated controversy around the country. Should Missourians approve the amendment, Missouri would join only five other states — California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — in providing such protection for stem cell research.

However, Republican opponents of the amendment have been put in a compromising situation since Gov. Matt Blunt, a conservative, has come out in support of the amendment. Former Sen. John Danforth, an abortion-rights opponent, also supports the bill and is a co-chairman of the coalition.

The move has divided the party, and has many Republicans unsure about what the future holds for them. Senate President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, says he has not made up his mind about how he would vote should the issue get on the ballot, but he’s confident that his party can withstand the debate. He also says that this amendment and the fact that it is an election year has candidates reluctant to talk about the issue.

“No one wants to deal with it,” Gibbons said. “Their attitude is, ‘Why would I want to hang myself out there on a controversial issue if the people are going to vote on it anyway?’”

The senator said the ballot-initiative process serves a purpose when the legislature refuses to act, but that hasn’t happened here, Gibbons said. It’s a hard issue, but that’s not why it hasn’t been passed, he said.

Gibbons is more concerned with how the amendment circumvents the legislative process.

“We should deal with this in the legislature, but it’s been pulled out of our hands,” Gibbons said. “This sort of issue takes two to three years to resolve.”

The legislature, however, does have an opportunity to debate the issue. Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that is identical to the ballot initiative. Neither senator, however, foresees the bill being taken up, albeit for different reasons.

Contrary to Gibbons, Graham says the Republicans would prefer to have the voters decide the issue. Graham concedes that he’d prefer to debate the issue in the Senate, too, but that Republicans just don’t want to talk about it.

“Sen. Gibbons has the power to bring this issue to the floor,” Graham said. “If he wants us to work on it, then I’m ready to go.”

Room for compromise?

With both sides confident that they will be victorious, the question becomes this: Is there a place where the two sides can compromise on the issue?

Rubin thinks that the amendment, with its punitive provisions and its ban on human cloning, is already an acceptable compromise.

“There is a nice middle balance here,” Rubin said. “This is really about the patients.”

MAHC says that there is no room for compromise, since adult stem cell research, using mature cells rather than embryonic stem cells, is already allowed.

“We are champions of adult stem cell research, and we think there should be more funding for this research and for ethical cures,” Winship said. “If you look at the seven states that have banned (embryonic stem cell research), you’ll see that Missourians have more in common with those than with California or New Jersey.”

Those states are Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona.

The Catholic Conference said that the issue is black and white and that no compromise is possible. It also said the Catholic Church supports 95 percent of life sciences research.

“It’s the five percent that uses human embryos that we oppose,” Weber said.

Not even a scientific breakthrough using embryonic stem cell research is enough to convince the opposition that this research is worthy of protection.

“Essentially, this is an issue of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ and even if a possibility for a breakthrough is there, we shouldn’t be engaging in unethical practices,” Weber said. “Ultimately, people have to stand by their principles.”

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