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Stem Cell Research

A Clone by any Other Name:
Missouri's deceptively worded ballot measure

By Colleen Carroll Campbell

MISSOURIANS WILL VOTE THIS NOVEMBER on an amendment to their state constitution that claims to ban human cloning. In a red state known for its pro-life movement, that would seem to be good news for those who believe that human embryos should not be created and destroyed for scientific research.

But political proposals are not always what they seem. The group sponsoring the amendment--the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures--is bankrolled by the founders of a multibillion-dollar biomedical research institute and supported by outspoken proponents of research cloning. Opponents include Missouri Right to Life and an array of socially conservative religious leaders. And despite ballot language that says the amendment will ban human cloning but allow all stem cell research not prohibited by federal law, the fine print--which Missourians will not see in the voting booth--allows somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the scientific process used to clone human embryos.

This semantic sleight of hand is the core of the proponents' strategy. Normally "human cloning" is synonymous with somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT--the fusing of the nucleus of a body cell and an egg that has had its nucleus removed to create a cloned embryo. Research cloning destroys the embryo, while reproductive cloning implants it in a uterus. The amendment defines "cloning" as implantation, thus banning reproductive cloning while making the cloning of embryos for research a constitutional right.

"They're redefining cloning . . . as embryo transfer [into a uterus]," said Dr. Robert Onder, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. "They're trying to change the terminology to define away the moral controversy."

Onder helped found Missourians Against Human Cloning, which sued Missouri secretary of state Robin Carnahan last fall over the ballot language. Carnahan had adopted the language almost verbatim from the amendment's sponsor. Onder's group lost in court and on appeal, and the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Judges ruled that the language fairly and accurately summarized the amendment, though they declined to settle the dispute about the scientific definition of cloning.

Connie Farrow, spokesperson for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, cites those rulings as proof that the ballot language is clear enough for voters. When asked how the initiative can be said to ban human cloning while allowing the cloning of human embryos for research, Farrow says, "Creating stem cells in a lab dish to cure disease and save life is not the same thing as cloning a human being." Pressed to identify the source of the embryonic stem cells in her hypothetical lab dish, she adds, "I believe it's a cloned organism. I don't believe it's the same thing as a baby. . . . And the majority of scientists agree with me."

The coalition does enjoy substantial support from Missouri's scientific community. James and Virginia Stowers, cofounders of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, have committed nearly $10 million to the campaign and made it clear their institute will cancel a major expansion in Missouri if the amendment fails. Washington University in St. Louis also backs the initiative, as do 60 patient and medical groups, more than 2,000 doctors, nurses, and health care workers, and a host of prominent politicians, including biotech-friendly Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican who counted health professionals among his largest donors in his 2004 campaign, and former Sen. John Danforth, whose family foundation is a major biotech funder in Missouri.

After paying more than $1 million to professional signature gatherers, the coalition has collected some 289,000 signatures for its petition--nearly twice the number the secretary of state will need to put the issue on the ballot. Farrow says the signatures demonstrate public support. But she acknowledges that the driving push behind the amendment came from research leaders like the Stowers, who were frustrated by attempts in Missouri's Republican legislature to ban research cloning. "Every year we face a new challenge," Farrow says. "If we put it in the constitution, it will settle this issue once and for all, and it will give Missouri voters a chance to have their voice heard on this issue."

That last point is debatable. Maureen Condic, a University of Utah embryologist who testified at trial against the ballot language, said the amendment is scientifically inaccurate and misleading to voters.

"That's not the scientific meaning of the term [cloning], and that's not how the term is used," said Condic, who noted that cloning occurs when an embryo is created, not when it is transferred into a uterus. "If you are in favor of allowing the voters of Missouri to decide on this question, then state it in unambiguous language that every human being can understand."

The trouble with plain language is that it scares voters. Polls show that most Americans disapprove of reproductive cloning, and their reaction to research cloning tends to be negative when pollsters tell them it entails the creation and destruction of human embryos. In May, for example, an International Communications Research poll commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 81 percent of respondents said scientists should not be allowed to "use human cloning to create a supply of human embryos to be destroyed in medical research"--roughly the same percentage that disapproved of reproductive cloning.

Pollsters find more support for research cloning when they do not mention the destruction of human embryos but do mention that such research could lead to medical cures. A 2001 Gallup poll framed this way found only 41 percent disapproved of research cloning, while 54 percent approved.

Such confusion may spell success for the Missouri amendment. A poll commissioned in January by the St.Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV found that 64 percent of likely voters agreed with the ballot proposal to allow all types of stem cell research, including embryonic research. But the pollsters did not mention that the amendment would allow the destruction of embryos, and it used the term "somatic cell nuclear transfer" instead of "cloning."

PROPONENTS OF RESEARCH CLONING are increasingly attuned to public ambivalence about the work they want to do. Some have lobbied their fellow scientists to stop using unpopular terms.

In a 2005 letter published in Science magazine, amendment supporters Dr. William Danforth and William Neaves laid out their arguments for dropping the terms "embryonic stem cell research," "cloned embryos," and "therapeutic cloning." Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Neaves, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute, noted that "embryo" tends to evoke images of a fetus rather than a blob of cells, and "clone" tends to make nonscientists think of "a living copy of another person."

The pair cited Merriam-Webster's Medical Desk Dictionary definition of an embryo as "the developing human individual from the time of implantation to the end of the eighth week after conception." But they failed to mention the first part of the entry, which defines an embryo as "an animal in the early stages of growth and differentiation that are characterized by cleavage, the laying down of fundamental tissues, and the formation of primitive organs and organ systems." That broader definition of "embryo" is commonly used in scientific and popular writing to describe the developing human individual in its zygote, morula, blastocyst, and embryo stages.

Danforth and Neaves also did not cite Merriam-Webster's definition of "clone" when urging Science to restrict the unpopular c-word to reproductive cloning and describe research cloning as SCNT. The medical dictionary defines a clone as "an individual grown from a single somatic cell of its parent and genetically identical to it"--precisely what is created in both research and reproductive cloning.

The editors of Science apparently rejected Danforth and Neaves's advice. Recent issues refer to the cloning of embryos, therapeutic cloning, and "somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or cloning." A recent MedLine search of medical science journals found "cloned embryos" mentioned in 111 articles since 2003, while 12 articles mentioned "pre-embryos," the preferred term of Danforth and Neaves. The New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, publications that strongly support research cloning, have described nuclear transfer as the process that creates a "cloned embryo" and have used the term "therapeutic cloning." Even a coalition brochure promoting the Missouri amendment includes testimonials to the benefits of "therapeutic cloning."

SEMANTIC ARGUMENTS may not impress most scientists, but they do provide cover to Missouri politicians torn between their biotech donors and their pro-life base. Blunt, who backs the amendment, embraces the coalition's definition of cloning-as-implantation. Republican senator Kit Bond, who has taken no position on the amendment, opposes both "criminalizing research" and "the cloning of human beings," but has left unclear whether he opposes research cloning. Republican senator Jim Talent, facing reelection, has said he personally opposes the amendment, which his Democratic challenger and her party support. But he recently withdrew his sponsorship of a proposed federal cloning ban. As for the Missouri Republican party, it has taken no position on the amendment, though its 2004 platform opposed "all human cloning."

For its part, Missourians Against Human Cloning is working with pro-life groups and Catholic and evangelical leaders to educate voters, mobilize the grassroots, and counteract a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz and a funding imbalance of 17 to one. "It is truly a David-and-Goliath battle," said Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life. "But we have the truth on our side."

The battle has made Missouri a symbolic prize in the stem cell wars. If a conservative Midwestern state governed by pro-life Republicans amends its constitution to protect the cloning of human embryos for research--making it only the second state after California to do so--similar amendments could crop up anywhere. Bernard Siegel, executive director of the pro-research-cloning Genetics Policy Institute and leader of an effort to put a similar amendment before Florida voters in 2008, says he is watching closely because "Missouri is always a bellwether state." Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics analyst at Focus on the Family, agrees. "We see this as pretty much ground zero right now. If something like the Stowers amendment can pass in Missouri, I think that's a sad indicator of what little people understand about cloning."

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former speechwriter to President Bush. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Loyola Press, 2002

Reprinted with permission of Colleen Carroll Campbell and the Weekly Standard, Copyright 2006 The Weekly Standard, July 3, 2006 - July 10, 2006

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