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Sunday, March 12, 2006

May They Split like the Titanic and Sink: Stem Cell Proposal Splits Missouri G.O.P.


ASSOCIATED PRESS

A ballot proposal promoting embryonic stem cell research is turning conservatives against one another in Missouri and threatening to tear apart the state Republican Party at the height of its modern-day influence.

The measure — sponsored by a coalition of medical groups, researchers, businesses and advocates for patients — would make Missouri the only state besides California to include the right to stem cell research in its state constitution.

Partly by pulling together business interests with religious conservatives opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, Republicans in Missouri have surged in the past five years, winning the governor's office and control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time since the 1920's. The party also holds both of the state's Senate seats.

But the debate over embryonic stem cell research is breaking up the partnership. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry supports the ballot measure, for example, while Missouri Right to Life vehemently opposes it.

Republicans like Gov. Matt Blunt and John C. Danforth, a former senator and United Nations ambassador who is an ordained Episcopal priest, are backing the measure. In response, Missouri Right to Life has declared that Mr. Blunt, who is not on the ballot until 2008, is no longer "pro-life."

"This referendum has the potential to rip our party apart," Representative Kenny Hulshof warned fellow Republicans at a recent statewide convention.

Because embryonic stem cells can develop into a variety of tissues, some scientists believe they could be used someday to treat spinal cord injuries and diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's.

The political furor focuses on a form of research in which embryos are cloned and the stem cells removed. Because the embryos are destroyed in the process, some say the practice amounts to the destruction of human life.

Missouri lawmakers backed by anti-abortion and church groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists, have tried unsuccessfully for several years to make the cloning procedure a criminal offense.

The ballot measure, guaranteeing that any federally allowed stem cell research or treatments could occur in Missouri, is a direct response to that effort. Its chief financiers are the founders of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and supporters of Washington University in St. Louis, which conducts stem cell research.

Unlike the California measure, which devotes $3 billion to stem cell research, the Missouri proposal commits no tax dollars to such experiments.

Despite continuing court challenges over the wording of the Missouri measure, the proposal appears certain to get enough petition signatures to be placed on the ballot in November.

A January poll by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that about two-thirds of respondents supported the measure. But since then, opponents have formed their own group, Missourians Against Human Cloning. Both sides plan to spend millions of dollars to influence voters.

Among those caught in the middle is Senator Jim Talent, a Republican who faces a re-election challenge in November from the state auditor, Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. Mr. Talent recently dropped his support of a federal bill to criminalize the cloning of human embryos but has not taken a position on the ballot measure. Ms. McCaskill supports it.

Republicans like Stella Sollars, who opposes embryonic stem cell research, are monitoring Mr. Talent's every utterance on the topic. "That issue of stem cells is the undercover issue that people are going to be voting on," Ms. Sollars said.

Doug Krtek, a self-described "pro-life" Republican and an elder at his Kansas City-area Disciples of Christ church, is nevertheless backing the stem cell measure. His 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, has juvenile diabetes and is an honorary co-chairwoman for the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, the organization behind the proposal.

"I think God can allow people to find new cures, new ways of doing things," Mr. Krtek said.

Others who could theoretically benefit have joined the campaign against the ballot measure.

Jeff McGarry, a 39-year-old Roman Catholic who has been a quadriplegic since a teenage diving accident, said it would be wrong to accept stem cells from an embryo.

"I would be acting very selfishly in doing that," he said, "because it's taking a life of an individual in order to better my existing life."