Stem cell research is a hot issue this campaign season, and nowhere more than in Missouri. Actor Michael J. Fox, a Parkinson's disease patient, can be seen on TV backing Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democratic Senate candidate who favors embryonic stem-cell research.
McCaskill is running against incumbent Republican Jim Talent, who opposes stem cell research. But that's not the only stem-cell decision for Missouri voters. They must also decide whether to amend their state constitution to specifically protect stem-cell research.
That decision helped prompt about 60 residents of the north-central Missouri town of Chillicothe to forgo the home state St. Louis Cardinals playing in the World Series Tuesday night. Instead, they gathered at the Grand River Inn to attend a community-organized debate on the stem-cell ballot measure.
But 90 minutes, two slide shows and a dozen questions later, many voters found themselves still uncertain about the complicated scientific concepts.
"Don't know. I still don't," said Chillicothe resident Sid Minor.
His wife, Fern, agreed.
"I was confused," she said, despite this being her second presentation on the subject. "And I don't know as I'm any brighter today as I was before I came in here."
The amendment basically says that any stem-cell research allowed under federal law will also be allowed in Missouri. Currently, that includes research on stem cells from human embryos.
Chillicothe resident Kathleen Pfaff objects to embryonic stem-cell research because it requires the embryo's destruction. Because of that, she's voting no.
"I lost a child when I was four months pregnant," Pfaff said. "And I had the option of either bearing it or giving it to research. And I chose to give it to research, so I'm not against research. But I most certainly will not create a life to have live research for any reason."
Bobbi Hanson, also of Chillicothe, is just as passionately for the amendment. She has multiple sclerosis, which is making it harder and harder for her to care for her three children.
"I really don't feel this is a moral issue," she said, barely holding back tears. "I just don't want to see people going through what I'm going through. And I think stem cells is the answer."
Cancer survivors Jim and Virginia Stowers think stem cells are the answer, too. The Kansas City couple have given most of the money that funds the campaign for the amendment. In the mid-1990s they used a piece of their billion-dollar fortune — Jim Stowers founded American Century Funds — to establish the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.
Bill Neaves is president and CEO of the institute. He says the Stowers had a simple goal.
"The Stowers Institute really represents Jim and Virginia's very deliberate decision to use their fortune to support a basic biomedical research institution," Neaves says, "that would, in their words, give their children better options than they had if diagnosed with a serious illness three or four decades from now... right here in Kansas City, their home town."
Nestled on a corner of the University of Missouri, Kansas City campus, the Stowers clearly spared no expense in building a state-of-the-art research facility. Lab-coated scientists pad up and down halls lined with African hardwood and local art. In just the six years it's been operating, Neaves says, Stowers scientists have already made some important discoveries using adult stem cells, but it doesn't currently have an embryonic stem-cell program.
Neaves blames that on the Missouri legislature, where, in each of the last six sessions, "bills were introduced that would make felons of scientists who conduct certain kinds of research, as well as patients and physicians who might avail themselves of treatments that come from this research."
The threat of an embryonic stem-cell research ban is also complicating Institute plans to expand by 600,000 square feet and 600 people every decade.
"Envisioning a secure future for that growth is difficult in an environment that is not cordial to that research with early stem cells," Neaves said.
Even the veiled threat that the institute might move out of Missouri is enough to scare business leaders.
Peter Levi, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, says keeping the Stowers Institute is not just about the money it pumps directly into the local economy, it's about the city's larger image.
Having Stowers, he says, "begins to draw national attention to our community. Companies begin to look at this as a progressive city that's open to medical research, education of all types, and that just makes Kansas City an even better place to locate and grow a business."
But that argument carries little weight with those who are opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, like Mary Kay Culp, a spokeswoman for Missouri Right to Life.
"One could make the argument that Dachau was an economic development for certain cities in Germany and concentration camps," Culp said. "And people don't like to be compared to that, but I think when it comes to life and death, economic development is just about the last thing we should be talking about."
Culp and other opponents of the amendment also say that proponents are misleading voters.
"In fact, when people go in to vote, the second thing they read is 'If you vote yes, you're going to ban cloning,'" Culp says. "The fact is, if they vote yes, they're going to legalize cloning in the state constitution, above where the state legislators can touch it."
That's because while the amendment does outlaw the implantation of cloned embryos in order to make a baby, it allows cloning to obtain embryonic stem-cells for research or treatments.
That's just one more thing for voters to puzzle out come election day.