Missouri Voters Weigh Stem-Cell Decisions A ballot initiative on stem-cell research is dividing Republicans in Missouri, and shaking up the U.S. Senate race between GOP Sen. Jim Talent and Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill.
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Missouri Voters Weigh Stem-Cell Decisions

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Missouri Voters Weigh Stem-Cell Decisions

Missouri Voters Weigh Stem-Cell Decisions

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Stem cell research is a hot issue this campaign season, and nowhere more so, than in Missouri. Actor Michael J. Fox, a Parkinson's disease patient, can be seen on TV there - he's backing the Missouri Democrat who's running for U.S. Senate, who favors embryonic stem cell research, challenging the Republican incumbent who opposes it.

And 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.

NPR's Julie Rovner traveled to Missouri this week and has this report.

JULIE ROVNER: The home state St. Louis Cardinals are playing in the World Series Tuesday night, but at the Grand River Inn in Chillicothe about 60 people skip the game to attend a community-organized debate on the stem cell ballot measure.

Unidentified Man: On behalf of the citizens of Chillicothe, I welcome you.

ROVNER: But an hour and a half, two slideshows and a dozen questions later, many voters found themselves still uncertain about the complicated scientific concepts. Chillicothe resident Sid Minor was one.

Mr. SID MINOR (Resident, Chillicothe, Missouri): No. No. I lack the knowledge of medicine to be able to decipher out a lot of those facts.

ROVNER: Minor's wife, Fern, was also uncertain.

Ms. FERN MINOR (Resident, Chillicothe, Missouri): I was confused. I had gone to the presentation at the Methodist church, but that was one-sided over there. And I don't know if it's any brighter today as was before I came in here.

ROVNER: 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 against it.

Ms. KATHLEEN PFAFF (Resident, Chillicothe, Missouri): I lost a child when I was four months pregnant. And I had the option of either bearing it or, you know, 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 a live research, for any reason.

ROVNER: But 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.

Ms. BOBBI HANSON (Multiple Sclerosis Patient; Resident, Chillicothe, Missouri): I really don't feel this is a moral issue. I just don't want to see people going through what I'm going through. And I think stem cells is the answer.

ROVNER: Cancer survivors Jim and Virginia Stowers think stem cells are the answer too. The Kansas City couple had given most of the money to fund the campaign for the amendment. In the mid-1990s, they used a piece of their billion-dollar fortune 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.

Mr. BILL NEAVES (President and CEO, Stowers Institute for Medical Research): To give their children better options than they had if diagnosed with a serious illness three or four decades from now.

ROVNER: The Stowers clearly spared no expense in building the state-of-the-art research facility. In just the six years it's been operating, Neaves says, Stower scientists have already made some important discoveries using adult stem cells. But it hasn't been able to recruit scientists who work on embryonic stem cells. He blames that on the Missouri legislature, where in each of the last six sessions...

Mr. NEAVES: Bills were introduced that would make felons of scientists who conduct certain kinds of embryonic stem cell research, as well as patients and physicians who might avail themselves of those treatments that eventually come from this research.

ROVNER: Neaves says 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.

Mr. NEAVES: Envisioning a secure future for that growth is difficult in an environment that is not cordial to research with early stem cells.

ROVNER: Even that veiled threat that the institute might move out of Missouri is enough to scare business leaders. Peter Levi is president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. He says keeping the Stowers Institute is not just about the money. It's about the city's image.

Mr. PETER LEVI (President, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce): That begins to draw national attention to our community; companies 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.

ROVNER: But that argument carries little weight with those who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Mary Kay Culp is a spokeswoman for Missouri Right to Life.

Ms. MARY KAY CULP (Spokeswoman, Missouri Right to Life): One can make the argument that's Dachau was an economic development for certain cities in, you know, in Germany that - the concentration camps. And people don't like it 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.

ROVNER: Culp and other opponents of the amendment also say that proponents are misleading voters.

Ms. CULP: In fact, when people go in to vote, the second thing they read is: If you vote yes, you're going to ban cloning. The fact is that if they vote yes, they're going to legalize cloning in the state constitution above where the state legislators can touch it.

ROVNER: 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 researcher treatments, just one more thing for voters to puzzle out, come Election Day.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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