By Vicki Brown, Word&Way Associate Editor
As Missouri voters prepare to go to the polls Nov. 7, both sides of the proposed constitutional amendment to legally protect embryonic stem cell research — the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative — have ratcheted up efforts to sway potential supporters. Both proponents and opponents appeal from emotional, moral, economic and political viewpoints.
The proposed constitutional amendment, if passed, would open the door to expanded research on human embryos and allow the controversial somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technology to be broadly used by Missouri research facilities.
In SCNT, sometimes referred to as "therapeutic cloning," scientists replace the nucleus of an unfertilized egg with DNA from a "somatic" or body cell of a particular organ, such as a nerve or the heart. The egg is stimulated, either with electricity or chemicals, to begin replicating as though it had been fertilized. The new cells created as the original divides are harvested for research.
Definition of life
The determining factor for many individuals, especially religious people, rests on the question: When does life begin? The question hasn't been easy to answer, and the answer changed throughout history.
According to Philip G. Peters Jr., a University of Missouri School of Law professor, the philosopher Aristotle determined that a male baby was not considered a person until 40 days after birth.
Ecclesiastical courts held to that definition until about 1600 A.D., when civil courts began to use 17 weeks after conception as the common definition. Harming a fetus at 17 weeks was considered a misdemeanor.
In about 1860, conception became the basis of life's definition. All 50 states eventually adopted that definition, and killing a fetus was classified as murder.
But in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the hotly debated Roe v. Wade case that a woman could choose to end a pregnancy based on viability, the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. In other words, a fetus has no rights until birth.
The decision did not apply to embryos created in a laboratory because they are created outside a woman's body and are not meant for implantation into the body.
The Southern Baptist Convention threw in its influence in 1974 by committing to conception as the moral beginning of life.
Scientists continue to debate the issue regarding embryos. Some, among them Dr. Maureen Condic, an associate professor of human embryology at the University of Utah, consider the first few cells of development as an embryo. The majority in the scientific community, including Dr. Douglas Melton, a co-director of stem cell research at Harvard University, defines a human embryo as "from implantation to the end of the eighth week of development."
The bottom line, Missouri Right to Life executive director Susan Kline said, is: "Which do you believe — does life begin at conception or inception…when a sperm and egg come together or when the egg begins to grow and reproduce cells?"
Many individuals, though, hold to what some consider the generally accepted scientific definition. "Most Missourians don't believe a few hundred cells in a dish equals a human being," Missouri Assistant Attorney General Karen King Mitchell declared at a January hearing over the ballot summary's wording.
Disagreement over the definition of life and how to sustain life that already exists also has deeply divided Christians, including Baptists. The moral implications seem to force individuals to choose whose life is most valuable to society.
Gov. Matt Blunt supports SCNT science, because, he said, he is pro-life and the process may lead to cures for a host of diseases, which would extend life and enhance its quality for those stricken with those diseases.
The governor upset some Missouri Baptists at the convention's annual meeting last year when he said that after praying and studying Scripture, he decided to support the research. He supports SCNT, he said, because the process does not produce a fertilized egg and, therefore, does not produce life.
Connie Farrow, spokesperson for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures and a Catholic, expressed regret that people judge her stand or fight against the proposal on religious grounds.
"I don't respect attempts to make a criminal out of me because I disagree with them, and I don't think our state should criminalize one belief," she said in a recent telephone interview.
Referring to attempts by Missouri legislators, particularly Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Lee's Summit), Farrow said she feels as though some individuals are "making criminals" of doctors and patients who pursue possible cures based on embryonic stem cell research.
She added she believes that attempts to curb research amount to promotion of only one religious viewpoint. "It's flat out wrong to try to pass laws to promote one religious view over another," she said.
For Kline, the issue strikes at the heart of an understanding of the nature of God as Creator. "We have a responsibility to make sure scientists don't become God," she said.
The Missouri Baptist Convention joined the move to stop the amendment proposal late last year, joining a lawsuit against the attorney general for wording of the ballot summary. The MBC also has contributed funds to develop materials.
The convention, through its Christian Life Commission, produced a DVD. The materials include a strategy timeline, voter registration items and pamphlets from the Family Research Council and Missourians Against Human Cloning.
In a cover letter, CLC chairman Rodney Albert encouraged pastors to fight the proposal. "We cannot avoid our responsibility as God's agents to motivate our flocks to defend the sanctity of human life," he wrote.
In a brief overview, the CLC noted that although the Bible does not speak to the issue specifically, it does emphasize the sanctity of life.
"[L]ike abortion, the conviction of Scripture is clear…. Life is life and only God can give it! Man can only manipulate God's creation," the material states.
"The battle over embryonic stem cells and human cloning is a large task that demands Christians to pray and act with boldness and clarity."
Confusion over science
Basing the decision on science may be difficult, unless voters are scientists themselves. They have to be willing to wade through the mountain of supporting material for both sides of the debate. Even researchers disagree over which process should be pursued.
Two types of stem cell research are underway — adult and embryonic or early stem (ES) cells. Researchers seem to be unable to agree on which type holds the most potential for cures or which would provide some cures more quickly.
Hundreds of scientific papers, news reports and Web sites tout potential benefits of one or the other type and give reasons for choosing one over the other.
Stem cells classified as "adult" come from post-natal tissue, including umbilical cord blood and placental tissues, and most of the human body's tissues.
Embryonic stem cells come from embryos — those created by the fertilization process, either natural or in vitro, and those created by SCNT.
Generally, ES cells are considered the most promising to produce cures because scientists believe ES cells could potentially form into any tissue. Many researchers believe embryonic is the only type of cell that holds the key to cures for a wide range of illnesses, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.
However, other medical professionals point out that similar results can be obtained through adult stem cells. They say studies suggest that some forms of adult stem cells, particularly bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid and a few others, also has the potential to replicate most tissue forms.
Researchers have yet to develop cures through ES cells, and the potential most likely will not be realized within the five- to 10-year-timeframe some advocates have claimed. Adult stem cell use, however, has already helped some patients with spinal cord injuries, leukemia and other diseases. Proponents of adult stem cell research have claimed their efforts are hampered because sufficient funding is unavailable or redirected to embryonic projects.
The word "cloning" also can confuse voters. Proponents of embryonic research hesitate to use the word or prefer to use the phrase "therapeutic cloning" as opposed to "reproductive cloning." Those who support the measure say the amendment bans human cloning.
Opponents, however, declare the proposal opens the door to cloning because SCNT, the technology used to clone Dolly the sheep, could eventually be used to reproduce human beings.
Voters must decide if the potential for cures scientists say embryonic stem cells embody is worth the wait, or if continued adult stem cell research holds more promise for the near future. And they must decide whether the potential to create a human clone is worth the risk.
Embryonic stem cell advocates claim they had to seek an amendment to the state constitution to protect what federal law already allows. Opponents claim supporters are simply trying to control the political process and to benefit economically.
"What cloners don't have…is the ability to control the legislature," Sen. Bartle's chief of staff Todd Scott said in a recent phone interview. Amendment 2 is "their attempt to go around the state legislature."
If passed, embryonic stem cell research would be constitutionally protected and out of lawmakers' reach, he said. Efforts to curtail its use would have to be decided in the courts.
Scott said Bartle has directed his efforts, which began while he was a member of the House, to ban cloning. He supports adult stem cell research, as long as it falls within "ethical boundaries," and has sponsored bills to promote it.
Last term, Bartle sponsored legislation in the Senate, while Rep. Jim Limpke sponsored a similar bill in the House. The House bill passed. Bartle withdrew his bill when some senators threatened a filibuster.
The near-passage of a similar bill (SB160) in 2005 led embryonic supporters to examine an amendment possibility. "At that point we realized this would be a repeated effort. We realized there would be a perennial threat," Connie Farrow said.
Amendment proponents argue that if SCNT is inhibited in Missouri, research facilities, such as the University of Missouri and the Stowers Institute in Kansas City, would have a difficult time attracting noted scientists.
The biotech field in the state, some assert, would suffer economically because it would not be able to attract private research funds.
In a December article posted on his Web site, Bartle claimed that 70 new life sciences research companies were started in Michigan over a three-year period in spite of the fact that Michigan does not allow embryonic stem cell research.
Right to Life's Susan Kline said she believes money is driving the amendment effort. Researchers cannot patent adult stem cells because those cells belong to the donor. "But once they kill the embryo, they can patent the stem cell line and can charge for the line or the therapy developed from it," she said.
Effect on women
Another aspect of the embryonic stem cell debate that is sometimes overlooked is the need for female donor eggs. Conservative estimates place the need for eggs in the millions, depending on the disease targeted for cure.
Proponents of embryonic stem cell research claim the need could be met by utilizing unused eggs from in vitro fertilization. Leftover eggs are either discarded or are frozen for future use.
There is no official record of the number of clinics operating in Missouri. However, seven are recognized by the Society for Assistive Reproductive Technology.
Some opponents argue against the use of embryos from any source on religious and moral grounds. A move has surfaced advocating adoption of frozen embryos, often referred to as "snowflake adoption."
The Missouri amendment notes that no one can, "for valuable consideration," purchase or sell eggs for stem cell research, therapies or cures. However, it allows some exceptions, including reimbursement for the costs of harvesting and lost wages. It also does not prohibit fertilization clinics or sperm banks from paying donors.
Opponents of ES cell research argue that women in Third World countries could be exploited for their eggs. College-aged young women have been targeted for several years to donate eggs to infertility clinics.
And the price some are willing to pay for eggs is attractive. According to a May 19 ABC News report, the average payment is about $5,000, with some payouts reaching as much as $20,000.
Egg harvesting puts a woman's health at risk. Women are injected with hormones to hyperstimulate the ovaries to produce a larger number of eggs.
Some have experienced complications, including blood clots, kidney and liver damage and infertility. Some women also have died as a result.
Voters can visit a host of Web sites for more information, including Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, www.missouricures.com; Missourians Against Human Cloning, www.nocloning.org; and handsoffourovaries.com. These include links to similar sites, scientific organizations and news reports. (10-05-06)