- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A ballot proposal promoting embryonic stem-cell research is turning conservatives against each other and threatening to tear apart Missouri’s Republican Party at the very height of its modern-day influence.

The measure — sponsored by a coalition of medical groups, researchers, businesses and patient advocates — would make Missouri the only state besides California to enshrine the right to stem-cell research in its state constitution.

But debate over the measure is fracturing the alliance of business interests and religious conservatives that propelled Missouri’s Republicans to statewide dominance in the past five years. The party controls both houses of the legislature for the first time since the 1920s, both Senate seats and the governorship.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry supports the ballot measure, for example, while Missouri Right to Life vehemently opposes it.

Republicans such as Gov. Matt Blunt and John Danforth, a former senator, U.N. ambassador and Episcopal priest, are backing the measure. In response, Missouri Right to Life has declared that Mr. Blunt, who is not on the ballot until 2008, is no longer “pro-life.”

“This referendum has the potential to rip our party apart,” Rep. Kenny Hulshof warned fellow Republicans at a recent statewide convention.

Because embryonic stem cells can develop into a variety of tissues, some scientists think they can be used someday to treat spinal-cord injuries and diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

The political furor focuses on a form of research in which embryos are cloned and the stem cells removed. Because the embryos are destroyed in the process, some religious conservatives say the practice amounts to the destruction of human life.

Missouri lawmakers backed by pro life and church groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists, have tried unsuccessfully for several years to make the cloning procedure a criminal offense.

The ballot measure — guaranteeing that any federally allowed stem-cell research or treatments can be done in Missouri — is a direct response to that. Its chief financiers are the founders of Kansas City’s Stowers Institute for Medical Research and supporters of Washington University in St. Louis, which conducts stem-cell research.

Unlike the California measure, which devotes $3 billion to stem-cell research, the Missouri proposal commits no tax dollars to such experiments.

Despite continuing court challenges over the wording of the Missouri measure, the proposal appears certain to get enough petition signatures to get onto the ballot in November.

A January poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that about two-thirds of people supported the measure. But since then, opponents have formed their own group, Missourians Against Human Cloning. Both sides plan to spend millions to influence voters.

Among those caught in the middle is Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who faces a tough re-election challenge in November from Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill. Mr. Talent recently dropped his support of a federal bill to criminalize the cloning of human embryos but has not taken a position on the ballot measure. Miss McCaskill supports it.

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