Features

Taking it to the states

Medicine | With presidential veto, stem-cell battle is far from over

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

ST. LOUIS-Republican senators returning to their home states for August recess face constituencies newly fractured over expanding public funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The issue-which drew the first veto of the Bush administration July 19-has fractured not only Republicans but even those conservatives elected with pro-life constituencies.

In Missouri, Republican Sen. Jim Talent is on the opposite side of the issue from Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who supports research on cloned embryos as well as those left over from in vitro fertilization. Blunt broke family ranks by supporting the research, which his father, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), opposes. But the governor has the support of former Republican Sen. John Danforth, an embryonic stem-cell research advocate who is also an Episcopal priest. In the midst of such a tangle, the Republican governor finds himself on the same side of the issue as Talent's Democratic rival in his upcoming reelection bid, Claire McCaskill. Blunt narrowly defeated McCaskill in a gruesome gubernatorial race in 2004.

Not surprisingly, the Missouri Democratic Party was quick to publicize Republican division on stem cells, blasting Talent in a statement issued the same day as the president's veto while trumpeting support for stem-cell research from Republicans Blunt and Danforth.

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"Jim Talent remains too weak to stand up to President Bush and fight for what's right, even when there is a chance to give hope and opportunity to Missourians with terminal illnesses," said Jack Cardetti, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party.

In the past few months, Talent has remained quiet about the issue compared to his opponents, who repeatedly label him a foe of the sick and dying. More than one political columnist has pegged stem-cell research as the deciding factor in the Talent-McCaskill race, but Talent chose to focus on other issues in his campaign kickoff tour of the state in June.

There is little hope of downplaying the issue this election, with a proposed state constitutional amendment in support of the research on the same ballot as the Talent-McCaskill race.

Rather than ending the debate over public funding of stem-cell research, the presidential veto instead moved it swiftly to the states. One day after the veto, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican, authorized a $150 million loan to fund the state's stem-cell institute. The same day Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, said he is diverting $5 million from the state budget for stem-cell research, even though the state's legislature has repeatedly blocked his requests for stem-cell research funding.

In Missouri, the proposed amendment to the state constitution goes a step further than the just-vetoed Senate bill by promising state support for research on stem cells from both frozen and cloned embryos. Talent announced his opposition to the amendment in May, saying, "I personally cannot support the initiative because I've always been opposed to human cloning, and this measure would make cloning human life at the earliest stage a constitutional right."

Congress managed to tiptoe around the issue of cloning in its recent debate on stem-cell research by focusing only on stem cells taken from in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos. Many senators justified their support for the research by arguing that the frozen embryos would be discarded eventually, anyway.

But researchers in Missouri, including those at the prestigious medical school at Washington University in St. Louis and the high-dollar Stowers Institute in Kansas City, would rather clone embryos for research than use fertility clinic leftovers. And they have cashed in on their medical reputations for political clout. As of June 30, the Stowers family, founders of the institute, had given about $15.4 million in support of the stem-cell amendment in Missouri.

Leaders at Washington University and the Stowers Institute have published editorials that attempt to demean opponents of embryonic stem-cell research on the pages of state papers and scientific journals.

"They believe," Stowers president William Neaves wrote of pro-lifers in March, "a few cells in a laboratory dish are a person-a few cells invisible to the human eye, a few cells that lack the ability to think, see, hear or feel. Anyone is entitled to this belief, but the concept flies in the face of common sense." Neaves urged Missourians to read the words of the amendment and decide its merit for themselves.

But the language of the amendment is sneaky; it prohibits scientists from making embryos for research by combining sperm and egg. But the cloning process combines eggs with other human cells besides sperm. In addition, the amendment seems innocent because it does not allocate any funds for research yet. But it would bar any branch of the state government or any local government from restricting the research in the future, even through taxation.

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