JEFFERSON CITY — Mixing religious fervor with scientific skepticism, opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment to protect embryonic stem cell research gathered Monday for the first in a series of rallies across the state.
Hundreds of people who packed a Jefferson City church Monday night heard Alan Keyes, a former Republican presidential candidate and United Nations ambassador, compare the contentious research technique to the worst excesses of Nazi Germany and American slavery.
A researcher from Washington University in St. Louis questioned the largely unfulfilled promise of embryonic stem cells in contrast to ongoing research with adult stem cells derived from bone marrow, umbilical cords and other sources.
And an evangelical Baptist pastor from Texas said the Missouri ballot initiative, if approved Nov. 8, would exploit the women whose donated eggs would be needed to fuel such work. The Rev. Rick Scarborough urged the multidenominational audience at Concord Baptist Church to work to defeat the measure known as the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.
“If the church is silent, then she will get what she deserves,” Scarborough said. “But if the church rises up, then we will turn back evil forces, and we will be successful.”
The proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution seeks to legally protect stem cell “research, therapies and cures” permitted under federal law — a response to unsuccessful legislative efforts to criminalize such activities.
It also stipulates a ban on human cloning, defined as an attempt to implant into a woman a scientifically created embryo that did not come from a sperm and egg.
Scarborough, Keyes and other opponents suggested that the title and ballot language are deceptive and misleading for failing to classify a certain form of embryonic stem cell research, known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, as the scientific equivalent of human cloning.
Under that procedure, the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg is replaced with the nucleus from a skin or nerve cell. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish, and researchers remove the resulting stem cells.
His voice booming, Keyes invoked what he called the Declaration of Independence’s guiding moral principle: that all men are created equal. He said that like a human fetus, a human embryo deserves those same legal and societal protections.
“Our whole way of life is not based upon a scientific observation,” Keyes said. “It is based on a moral principle.”
Contacted after the rally, supporters of the proposed amendment accused their opponents of deceptive tactics.
Donn Rubin, chairman of a group of business leaders, patient advocates and researchers called the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, said initiative opponents “are purposely creating a smoke screen of misleading information.”
He also questioned why the opponents relied on a pair of non-Missourians to make their case.
“These are people who don’t work here, they don’t live here, they don’t vote here and they and their families don’t get health care here,” said Rubin, who did not attend the rally. “It’s not clear why Missourians should care about what they have to say on these issues.”
Unlike Keyes and Scarborough, Shao-Chun Chang, a professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, offered the crowd a primer on both embryonic and adult stem cell research.
Calling embryonic stem cell research “immature,” Chang said amendment supporters are overstating the possible benefits of the research to help find and deliver cures for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other life-threatening ailments.
“This is not a science issue,” he said. “In my mind, it becomes a moral and ethical question.”
Church leaders estimated the crowd, which filled most of the pews, at 850 participants.
Similar events are planned this month in Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, with dates to be determined for rallies in Kansas City and Springfield.