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Group pushes effort to ban any state funding for stem cell research

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2009 - A St. Louis-based anti-abortion group is trying to put a ban on state funding for embryonic stem cell research into the Missouri Constitution, a shift in strategy after efforts to ban specific stem cell research procedures failed.

In 2006, Missouri voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment barring the Missouri General Assembly from interfering with any stem cell research allowed by federal law. The measure, commonly known as Amendment 2, protects a practice called somatic cell nuclear transfer.

SCNT involves transferring a person's DNA from the nucleus of another cell into an unfertilized egg to cultivate stem cells. Social conservatives believe the process is immoral, while researchers believe the technique could lead to cures of diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and reverse spinal cord injuries.

Amendment 2 also has protections against government restrictions on funding for stem cell research; governmental entities "shall not eliminate, reduce, deny, or withhold any public funds" to organizations lawfully conducting stem cell research or providing treatments derived from the research.

That passage has sparked budgetary battles over state funding. A group called Roundtable for Life , for example, has argued that Amendment 2 could open the door for the Life Sciences Research Trust Fund to pay for embryonic stem cell research.

The trust fund was set up in 2003 to funnel the state's tobacco settlement money into life sciences research. When the trust fund was created, lawmakers prohibited funding from going to "human cloning" or abortion. Last year, lawmakers allocated $21 million to the trust fund for research on projects such as animal science and medical device development.

But social conservatives argued the funding clause in Amendment 2 makes those restrictions unconstitutional. Once restrictions are taken off, critics say, funds from the trust fund could be used for embryonic stem cell research.

One of the Roundtable's leaders is Ed Martin, the controversial onetime chief of staff for former Gov. Matt Blunt. Martin says the ballot item is meant to resolve the questions about funding. The Roundtable's measure states that it "shall be unlawful to expend, pay, or grant any public funds for abortion services, human cloning, or prohibited human research."

"What we have been saying is if you study closely what Amendment 2 did, it looks like it has created access in the constitution ... to public funding" of embryonic stem cell research, said Martin.

Nonsense, says Donn Rubin, the president of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures , which supports Amendment 2. "They claim to fear that somehow Amendment 2 would require the legislature to fund stem cell research. But we have two years of experience now since Amendment 2 passed with a legislature funding very specific areas of life sciences that do not include stem cell research.

"Clearly that's not their motivation. Their motivation is stated -- not to the press, but to their own supporters on multiple occasions -- that basically these 'funding' attacks are really a Trojan horse to ban stem cell research."


The Roundtable's ballot item seems to shift focus from banning stem cell research outright to choking off potential sources of funding.

Soon after Amendment 2 was passed, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, and then-Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, introduced a constitutional amendment that would have provided Missourians with a chance to ban SCNT. The pair's goal was to pass the measure through the General Assembly, which would have placed the issue before the voters last year.

While the Lembke-Bartle resolution received plenty of attention during the 2007 legislation session, it failed to get out of committee. Bartle later conceded that passing the resolution would be next to impossible. Lembke, now a state senator, said earlier this month that he has no plans to place a legislative ban on SCNT on next year's ballot.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research had no luck getting an SCNT ban on the ballot through the initiative petition process. A group called Cures Without Cloning tried, but its effort was ultimately unsuccessful.

Martin said that he sees the new ballot item as something of a compromise.

"We are not out saying to people that our goal is to criminalize anything or to ban anything," Martin said, adding that proponents who don't want public funding and opponents who oppose the practice should join together. "Don't trust government administering vast sums of money -- millions of dollars -- through private non-profits and other entities. And that's what we're finding success in people understanding."

A number of groups that supported a ban on SCNT have generally been positive about the Roundtable's proposal. But that campaign won't completely replace efforts to ban certain stem cell procedures, they say.

Jaci Winship, the executive director for Missourians Against Human Cloning , said curtailing potential funding sources is important. 

"That's certainly is going to be a focus, a very important focus," she said. "But we'll continue to bring to light the issues, continue to educate people on human cloning and how inappropriate it is on a number of levels. And (we'll focus on) the breakthroughs that continue to happen that don't require creating and destroying human life."

Both Larry Weber, an attorney for the Missouri Catholic Conference , and Sam Lee of Campaign Life Missouri said they're watching how the Roundtable's efforts play out. Weber said that the funding focus, though, wouldn't necessarily stop efforts to ban SCNT.

"I mean, there are still a variety of issues that were presented by Amendment 2," Weber said. There are people who have problems with funding, "but there are other people who want to deal with the ultimate issue of human cloning and embryonic stem cell research."

Lee said the Roundtable's proposed amendment is one of many efforts to alter or change Amendment 2. "But certainly the funding is a big aspect of it," he said.

Susan Klein, legislative liaison for Missouri Right to Life , said rectifying the funding issue is part of a multi-faceted strategy to alter portions of Amendment 2.

"All pro-life and pro-family organizations across the state are trying to close those loopholes, to make sure that our state money does not get used for unethical research," Klein said. "All of the pro-life and the pro-family groups are working together to close the loopholes on funding, to close the loopholes on human cloning, to close the loopholes on… embryonic stem cell research that Amendment 2 put into our constitution."

Republicans have disagreed over whether the restrictions on the trust fund are unconstitutional after Amendment 2's passage. A smattering of Republicans -- including state Rep. Therese Sander, R-Moberly, and state Rep. Jason Brown, R-Platte County -- voted against legislation that included the trust fund allocation.

Lembke, on the other hand, voted for that bill. But he said he was receptive to the Roundtable's amendment.

"There are people on both sides of the issue that believe Amendment 2 ties the hands of the legislature as far as their ability to appropriate," Lembke said. "I don't happen to agree with that. But, you know, we haven't gotten to a point where a judge has said he think it does."


Funding for stem cell research could get a boost in the near future. President Barack Obama is expected to lift restrictions barring researchers from using unused embryos from fertility clinics. Only existing stem cell lines were allowed to receive federally funded during President George W. Bush's administration.

Lifting that ban, Rubin said, could provide scientists at universities and foundations with a chance to vie for federal funding for research. When asked whether his group wants state funding for research, Rubin said his organization is focused on "protecting the freedom to conduct research."

"And now with a new federal administration and Congress that is likely to increase funding for this promising research, Missouri is placed to be able to attract federal funding to conduct that research," Rubin said. "There's never been a request for state funding for that research."

One of the potential consequences of the Roundtable's ballot initiative, Rubin said, is that all funds -- including private, state and federal money -- would be barred from projects at public universities.

"The consequences are very broad," Rubin said. "Because it incorporates so many other statutes and other definitions, it will probably take some time to really understand the far-researching consequences."

Asked whether his measure targeted federal funding, Martin said that the amendment "deals with public funds. That is a definition of state dollars. So, no."

"I believe that a good portion of the people who pushed Amendment 2 do want access to funding," Martin said. "I think that's realistic, I'm not particularly judging them. I think that's how a bunch of private institutions and businesses function. They look to suckle at the teat of the state and federal government."


For years, opponents of embryonic stem cell research have been at odds with Secretary of State Robin Carnahan's office over ballot language. This election cycle is no exception.

Carnahan's office released ballot language on Martin's proposal that asked whether the Missouri Constitution should be changed to "make it illegal for the legislature or state or local governments to expend, pay, or grant public funds to hospitals or other institutions for certain research and services" such as "abortion services, including those necessary to save the life of the mother, and certain types of stem cell research currently allowed under Missouri law."

The ballot language also stated that the measure "could have a significant negative fiscal impact on state and local governmental entities by prohibiting the use of public funds for certain research activities." It also said that federal grants to state government entities could be "in jeopardy."

Martin said ballot language is "outrageous" and "will not be tolerated." The group has filed a lawsuit in Cole County Court to challenge Carnahan's ballot language and the fiscal note crafted by state Auditor Susan Montee.

Steve Clark, an attorney for the Missouri Roundtable for Life, said in a statement that Carnahan's office "abused her power one too many times and Missouri citizens need the courts to act to control her."

Additionally, two proponents of embryonic stem cell research also sued, telling the Associated Press in a statement that the measure is seeking to "rob us of our hope for the future."

Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for Carnahan, defended the ballot language as "fair."

"Obviously, we think the ballot initiative summary language for this measure is fair and sufficient," Hobart said. "And it accurately describes the effect of the proposed constitutional change."

Hobart said ballot language is written up by the secretary of state's general counsel. After it is approved by Carnahan, it goes to the attorney general's office to be reviewed for legal content. Hobart also said groups opposed and supportive of ballot language can provide suggestions.

"Often, certain interest groups feel one or way or another about the language that we write. But it's not written for them, it's written for the voters of Missouri."

Jason Rosenbaum, a fomer state government reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, contributes to Missouri Lawyers Weekly and KBIA radio in Columbia.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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