On the heels
of federal debate over human embryonic stem cell research, and two
years after the passage of California's stem cell research initiative,
the issue returns to a state ballot. But this time, in the central
state of Missouri, the policy proposal is much different.
Unfortunately, many of the worst aspects of the public discourses
seen in Washington and California are being repeated in Missouri:
Exaggerated promises of imminent lifesaving cures and major economic
benefits by the research advocates, and a focus on the moral status
of the embryo by the loudest opponents that obscures other important
issues. What's different in Missouri, however, is the questionable
relevance of the actual policy proposal.
What Amendment 2 would (and would not) do
Missourians will decide the fate of Amendment 2, which would add
2000 words to the state constitution, ensuring that any stem cell
research permitted by the federal government is allowed at the state
level. Furthermore, it would prohibit human reproductive cloning—certainly
an admirable policy goal.
In contrast, both the federal and California policies concerned
public funding. The national bill, passed by both chambers of Congress
but vetoed by President Bush, would have expanded funding eligibility
to stem cell lines from embryos created but not used for fertility
purposes. The California voter initiative set aside $3 billion in
state funds to support a wide range of stem cell research, including
research cloning, and created a constitutional right to conduct
stem cell research.
What's actually at stake in Missouri is the use of cloning techniques
to create stem cell lines. In recent years, certain conservative
state legislators have regularly introduced a bill to ban both reproductive
and research cloning. None of these bills have even reached the
floor of either chamber for a vote, and the current governor—as
well as his likely opponent in the 2008 election—have promised
to veto any ban on research cloning.
Technically, research cloning is at an early stage—no one has
yet succeeded in deriving a stem cell line from a cloned embryo—and
experts are split on its importance. Some say it will be essential,
while others say that it is not needed, or not even possible. Other
observers argue that even if cloning-based therapies are technically
possible, they will be financially prohibitive. Only a handful of
labs in the world are trying to produce stem cells from cloned embryos,
and none of them are in Missouri.
In other words, Amendment 2 would create a constitutional protection
to perform a line of research that is presently legal, currently
speculative, and not even being done in the state. Thus, it would
go to the greatest length possible at the state level—modifying
its constitution—to enact a policy that is at least two degrees
away from having an impact on stem cell research: Researchers would
need to be engaged in research cloning, and a prohibition on the
practice would need to have a significant chance of becoming law.
Until then, in terms of policy impact, Amendment 2 is merely a ban
on reproductive cloning.
On the other hand, the desire for stable policy among researchers
is understandable. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research, a
major new research center in Kansas City, Missouri with a $2 billion
endowment from its namesake, claims it attempted to hire a scientist
for human research cloning. But the leading candidate was unwilling
to leave his current position if the future legality of his work
was in doubt at his destination.
Unfortunately, if research cloning efforts do begin in the state,
Amendment 2 would allow Missouri scientists - unlike those in California,
Massachusetts, and a number of other countries—to pay women
to provide eggs for their work. The text of the initiative is misleading
on this point: The permissibility of paying for eggs is made clear
only in the "definitions" section.
The public discourse
over Amendment 2 has quickly polarized, with accuracy as a casualty.
Initiative supporters call themselves the "Missouri Coalition
for Lifesaving Cures" and ask rhetorically, "Should Missouri
patients have access to medical cures that are available to other
Americans?" Similarly, Claire McCaskill, the Democratic Senate
candidate and a supporter of Amendment 2, used the words "lifesaving,"
"cure," or "save [a life]" twenty-two times
among her 732 words in an interview on the topic with the Associated
This rhetoric, which pervades the campaign, makes it almost impossible
to realize that it's unfortunately much too soon to be promising
stem cell cures, and that this is especially the case for those
based on cloning techniques. In fact, if there ever are cloning-based
stem cell therapies, they will be extremely expensive—possibly
hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if an anti-cloning bill were
to be law, a trip to an adjacent state would add relatively little
to the cost. A much more significant hurdle to health care is how
the half-million uninsured Missourians can pay for the most basic
medical treatments, much less those that might cost a quarter of
a million dollars.
Finally, Amendment 2 advocates argue that significant economic development
is at stake. It's true that the Stowers Institute threatens to build
its planned expansion across the state line in Kansas if Missouri
were to ban research cloning. But the campaign's website asserts
that the initiative will "keep and attract millions of dollars
in research investments to our state." It also touts a study
of the likely economic benefits of Amendment 2 by The Analysis Group,
which promises that the initiative will "reduce state health
care costs by billions." Yet these conclusions are based on
cures for six diseases that include those that are more common,
yet less likely to be treated with stem cells, such as heart attacks,
stroke, and Alzheimer's.
These exaggerations have been propagated by a campaign that has
already broken the state's fundraising records. At $16 million,
by June it had already shattered the state's record for fundraising
for any campaign - and that total is four months before the election.
This is already about three times the amount spent, on a per capita
basis, by California's Proposition 71 campaign. Furthermore, $15.4
million of the campaign's war chest comes from a single source:
James and Virginia Stowers, founders of the medical institute.
The rhetoric of the initiative's opponents is also troubling. Despite
their name, Missourians Against Human Cloning are led and funded
by opponents of all human embryonic stem cell research and abortion
rights. One key player in the MAHC camp is Focus on the Family,
the right-wing evangelical Christian organization. In a pamphlet
opposing Amendment 2, Focus on the Family cynically used quotes
from women's reproductive health advocates, including Judy Norsigian
of Our Bodies Ourselves and the Center for Genetics and Society.
These pro-choice individuals and organizations support embryonic
stem cell research, but have raised
concerns about research cloning and the collection of the women's
eggs that are needed for it. In contrast, the leaders of Missourians
Against Human Cloning spend their other efforts working to prohibit
abortion and access to contraception.
Missourians Against Human Cloning routinely blur the distinction
between reproductive cloning and research cloning. Though this conflation
can be seen as a logical extension of their position that an embryo
is a full-fledged human being, failing to acknowledge the difference
between a cloned child and a cloned embryo certainly skews consideration
of the issue.
Opponents of Amendment 2 also touted the statements of David Prentice,
a consultant with the anti-abortion Family Research Council, claiming
that adult stem cells are currently treating sixty-five diseases.
This was quickly refuted by more reputable scientists.
Cell Déjà Vu
debates from California, one can only feel a sense of déjà
vu. Two years ago, proponents of California's stem cell research
initiative spent millions of dollars on ads that simplified numerous
complex issues into support for or opposition to embryonic stem
cell research. They featured doctors in white coats, researchers
in their labs, and children with diseases that may some day be treated,
asking for support. As in Missouri this year, the campaign was bankrolled
with millions by a single research advocate. California's campaign
even used the same consultants to provide an inflated report of
economic benefits. In California, however, opponents of the initiative
included pro-choice groups such as the Center for Genetics and Society,
the California Nurses Association, and the Pro-Choice Alliance Against
Beyond the results of the Missouri initiative, what is at stake
is public understanding and responsible policy on somatic cell nuclear
transfer. The overheated rhetoric is part of a broader pattern in
the public discourse around embryonic stem cell research across
the US. The polarized debate causes critical issues beyond the moral
status of the embryo to be overlooked. While embryonic stem cell
research holds significant medical and scientific potential, the
necessity of research cloning remains unclear, and it raises other
Ballot initiative campaigns are notorious for presenting the public
with confusing claims about controversial and often complex proposals,
and the Missouri stem cell research initiative is no exception.
The result is an electorate that will be forced to make an up or
down policy choice on the basis of distorted information and misleading