Stem cell battle has big implications

News Analysis

Missouri continues to be a major battleground between proponents of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research and anti-abortion groups.

Nine months ago, Missouri voters approved Amendment 2, which permits any stem cell research and therapies allowed by federal law.

On Aug. 22, ESC research opponents filed a petition to reverse the ballot outcome by defining somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) as human cloning and making it illegal. SCNT is a promising technique in which the nucleus of a patient’s cell is transferred to an enucleated egg from which genetically matched stem cells can then be derived.

The petition resurrects one of their old distortions, their claim that the state constitutional amendment allows human cloning. The amendment clearly states: “No person may clone or attempt to clone a human being ... a felony crime — subject to a jail term of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $250,000.” It further defines human cloning as implanting a cloned blastocyst or embryo in a woman’s uterus to create a human or human body parts, and clearly prohibits it.

No issue identifies more clearly the theological underpinnings of the anti-abortion (anti-women’s rights) movement. The movement has defined itself by the misnomer “pro-life.”

Of course, the blastocyst, the size of a period at the end of this sentence, from which ESCs are derived, is alive. So are the millions of bacteria in our intestines, so are the plants and trees that sustain the animal world, and so are the millions of people with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, macular degeneration or many other deadly or debilitating diseases who look to this new technology to restore their health.

This debate shows that the “pro-life” movement is really a “pro-soul” movement. As an aside, the theology that claims the fertilized egg has a soul is not universally accepted by all the major religions, and only in recent times by the Catholic Church, a main organizational opponent of ESC technology. Some prominent Catholic theologians are still opposed to the dogma that, when fertilized, a human egg is imbued with a soul.

The fanatic drive against ESC research and therapies has spread into areas of economic progress and education. On June 28, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City announced that it would continue to delay expansion because the negative climate in Missouri is making it difficult to recruit scientists.

Support for the University of Missouri has also been affected. Salaries depend on state funding, and Missouri ranks last among 33 peer institutions in percentage salary increases in the last decade and 47th among 50 states in appropriations for higher education.

Many faculty and administrators feel hostility from some legislators, especially in the area of life science research. In the last legislative session, $85 million for an MU research building was axed because of concerns that it could house ESC research. Also, $31 million for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center at MU was denied late in the session.

This struggle against superstition and ignorance is also occurring at the federal level, with President Bush exercising his first veto last year to kill the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. It seems incredible that this would be an issue in the 21st century, but it is yet another battle that must be met by progressive forces worldwide.

It is also an excellent example of the contradictory and conflicting forces behind corporate power. They have used religious fanaticism to maintain that power, but that same fanaticism is now impeding a new world of technology that could generate enormous corporate profits.

David Kennell (kennell @borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine.