Stem cell amendment win provides lessons

Missouri voters narrowly approved Amendment 2, 51 percent to 49 percent, making Missouri the first state to amend its constitution to protect stem cell research and therapies allowed by federal law.

At issue was the use of embryonic stem cells (SC) in research and therapies. They provide great potential to treat many debilitating human diseases. Led by the nationwide anti-abortion forces of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants and the religious right, the opposition flooded the media with misinformation and distortion. Aiding was the PR firm Creative Response Concepts of Alexandria, Va., which helped defeat John Kerry in 2004 with the insidious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign.

Both sides appealed to strong emotions. A dramatic television ad showed a weeping teenage girl who sold her eggs to pay for a college education, unaware, the ad said, that she might never be able to bear a child or “might even die.” Amendment 2 clearly outlaws gainful purchase or sale of eggs.

An equally dramatic TV ad, this one supporting Amendment 2, showed Michael J. Fox with obvious loss of muscle control from Parkinson’s disease. This fatal illness afflicts 2 percent of persons over 65. His presentation was cruelly ridiculed by Rush Limbaugh. Parkinson’s is caused by death of dopamine neurons in the brain and is expected to be one of the first diseases curable by embryonic SC.

Why Missouri? Funding for all biotech research in the state has been stalled for three years by the threat of anti-stem cell laws. For example, the 25 percent of the state’s tobacco-settlement money ($40 million) earmarked for life-science research in 2007 was spent elsewhere because of the battle over stem cells.

Opponents in the state’s Legislature vowed to criminalize the research if Amendment 2 failed. Thus, universities, health professionals, progressives and disabled citizens were joined by corporate interests, including major supporters of the Bush administration, who recognized that the failure of Amendment 2 would have a severe impact on the economy.

This was a split between business interests and fundamentalist religious groups. Business interests had used those religious groups to win past elections.

There were also opposing positions among progressive groups. The Green Party of St. Louis opposed Amendment 2. It feared that “low-income women of color would be targeted” for eggs, funds for low-income health care would be diverted, and “SC research would bankroll the biotechnology industry.” The Green Party has opposed biotech funds for genetic engineering in agriculture.

In contrast, the Two Rivers Greens, affiliated with the Green Party U.S. and the Progressive Party of Missouri, supported Amendment 2.

Many lessons can be drawn from this unusual campaign. First, we live in a capitalist economy. The driving force of production is profits. However, it does not follow that all production is destructive. Tobacco products and weapons production are destructive, but safety windshields and new medical treatments are beneficial. Good or bad, the blind forces of profit-potential dictate their development. Advances in science and technology can lead to great benefits for mankind; stem cell therapies are a good example.

Second, the contradictions between the means of production and the social relations of production tend to become more extreme with the increased complexities introduced into production by new technologies. Stem cell therapies may eradicate some fatal diseases and extend lifetimes. However, this will increase the need for an adequate health industry, which is already grossly inadequate. The battle to save Social Security and Medicare will become more intense with a burgeoning older population.

Third, progressives should support what can benefit society from new technologies. Amendment 2 carefully guards against exploiting women or cloning humans, but problems, such as benefits being restricted to the wealthy or efforts to exploit women, will persist in a profit-driven economy. However, we cannot base our judgment on these anticipated conflicts.

Finally, in many campaigns there will be diverse social and political crosscurrents of support and opposition. Resulting collaborations provide an opportunity to educate people that the basic solution for eliminating the destructive societal forces is to transform the economic system to one that is based on production for beneficial use rather than for profits.

David Kennell (kennell @ borcim.wustl.edu ) is professor emeritus of molecular biology at Washington University in St. Louis.