Mo. May Vote on Stem Cell Research

In a St. Louis laboratory, cord blood samples are tested for stem cell work.
In a St. Louis laboratory, cord blood samples are tested for stem cell work. (By J.b. Forbes -- St. Louis Post-dispatch Via Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- As Jeff McCaffrey views the Missouri stem cell debate, the case for research is clear. Paralyzed in a traffic accident, the former Air Force Academy cadet sees embryonic stem cell work as "faithful, godly and absolutely moral."

"Hopefully," said McCaffrey, 21, "people like me can get out of our wheelchairs."

To many socially conservative Republicans and religious leaders in Missouri, however, a new political campaign to legalize and protect such research is an evil to be fought in courtrooms, churches and polling stations.

Lawrence Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, called it "morally reprehensible science." Bishops instructed priests to deliver pointed homilies.

Voters may be asked to decide. After the courts weigh in, that is.

At issue is an amendment to the Missouri constitution proposed for the November 2006 ballot by a well-funded coalition of research institutions and patient advocacy groups frustrated by legislative attempts to ban early stem cell work in a state with a significant stake in biomedical research.

If voters support the amendment, Missouri would be the first state to formally recognize a right for scientists to conduct federally approved embryonic stem cell research, and for patients to receive treatment, backers say.

"We're not trying to fund stem cell research," said Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which has collected $2.9 million for the ballot drive. "All we're trying to do is to ensure the freedom in our state to pursue cutting-edge medical research and to ensure that when cures and treatments are found, Missourians have the same access as any other American would have."

The collision of politics, science and religion is particularly vivid in a region where, just next door, a conservative majority on the Kansas State Board of Education recently rewrote science standards to spur teachers to challenge modern Darwinian evolution.

Stem cell proponents believe a ballot victory in a largely Republican state such as Missouri would be a significant boost for science and a satisfying win in the culture wars.

From the other side, opponents would love to see social conservatives crowd the polls in a replay of last year's overwhelming approval of a ban on same-sex marriage, yet Republicans are more divided on the stem cell issue. While Sen. James M. Talent is co-sponsoring a federal bill that would ban the procedure widely known as therapeutic cloning, Gov. Matt Blunt (R) and former senator John C. Danforth (R) have backed the proposed ballot initiative.

"My entire political career, I voted pro-life, and that is exactly why I favor the stem cell initiative," Danforth, an Episcopal minister and former U.N. ambassador, says in a television advertisement. "I believe in saving human life. I want cures to be found."

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