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University of Missouri gets swept into renewed battle over embryonic stem-cell research

A colony of embryonic stem cells, from the H9 cell line. The cells in the background are mouse fibroblast cells. Only the colony in the center are human embryonic stem cells.
Ryddragyn | English Wikipedia -

Nine years after Missouri voters approved protections for embryonic stem cell research, the issue has re-emerged as a hot topic in Jefferson City and among next year’s candidates.

A key factor: Missouri Right to Life – a longstanding opponent of embryonic stem-cell research – is linking the issue to its opposition to Planned Parenthood, which operates Missouri’s only abortion clinics.

“Being pro-life is not just about abortion," said Susan Klein, Right to Life’s legislative liaison. “It’s about protecting life on every issue.”

The University of Missouri has become a target because of research it's doing with established stem cell lines on pregnancy complications.

Behind every debate on this issue is the 2006 constitutional amendment approved by voters that protects embryonic stem cell research.

And winding through all of this is politics: Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, opposes abortion but supports this research, while the most prominent GOP gubernatorial candidates are opposed.

Eric Greitens, John Brunner, Catherine Hanaway and Peter Kinder have all declared their opposition to embryonic stem-cell research or at least the state funding of it, despite the protections added in 2006 with the narrow passage of Amendment 2 to the state constitution.

Kinder and Hanaway highlighted their opposition to any use of state money for embryonic stem-cell research, while the others declared their blanket objections to such research.

Hanaway, for example, said, “Protecting religious liberties will not stop Missouri from being a leader in medical research. I applaud those researchers in Missouri who are making great strides with non-embryonic research.”

Meanwhile, the likely Democratic nominee, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, has reaffirmed his support of embryonic stem-cell research and emphasized that the stem-cell debate was a key reason he left the Republican Party in 2007.

In fact, Koster has launched a petition drive on his campaign website “to stop the threats to the University of Missouri’’ where some of the stem-cell research is taking place.

Focus shifts to University of Missouri

The injection of the University of Missouri into the stem-cell/abortion debate appears to have raised the stakes. Some abortion opponents are calling for hearings, and possible legislation, pertaining to what the university’s scientists may or may not be doing when it comes to embryonic stem cells. Even if no state money was involved.

“I do not think that state institutions that receive taxpayer funds should be involved in embryonic stem-cell research,’’ said Josh Hawley, a Republican candidate for attorney general who also is a Mizzou law professor on unpaid leave.

The other major Republican candidate for attorney general, state Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, leads the Senate panel looking into Planned Parenthood’s activities in the state.

Schaefer says it’s legitimate to link the embryonic stem-cell issue to the debate over whether Planned Parenthood in some states has been improperly handling fetal remains after abortions.

“The question is, is stem-cell research going on … essentially on stem cells that are derived by ending a human life,” Schaefer said. “And that’s a very serious issue and … it’s relevant to the discussion on Planned Parenthood” and allegations that its operations in some states are improperly selling remains from abortions for stem-cell research.

As for the University of Missouri, Schaefer said he’d been assured that the embryonic stem-cell research only involves the stem-cell lines that had been approved during President George W. Bush’s administration as part of a national compromise.

The columns at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Credit St. Louis Public Radio file photo
The University of Missouri is working with stem cell lines that were approved during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“At this point, I have no reason to dispute that,’’ Schaefer said. But he added, “That’s something we will probably want to look at, at some point in the committee” to make sure that what the university had told him was accurate.

A university spokesman said that Schaefer’s account is correct. The embryonic stem-cell research at the university uses only Bush-era stem-cell lines and involves only two projects, the spokesman said.

Both projects deal with certain complications during pregnancy -- notably pre-eclampsia, which can be fatal. The aim is to find better treatments or prevention, he said.

Klein emphasizes that Right to Life does support other forms of stem cell research, such as those involving adult stem cells or cells from umbilical cords. Right to Life contends that other research has had more promising results than those involving embryonic stem cells.

Abortion opponents split over stem-cell debate

Mary Kogut, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, laments that the stem-cell issue appears to have been drawn into the debate over her agency's operations. She emphasizes that Planned Parenthood in Missouri doesn't participate in any donation programs involving fetal tissue or stem cells, but adds that she has respect for the women in other states who have donated such tissue for medical research.

"Stem cell research is a bipartisan issue," Kogut said. "It does not have anything to do with abortion."

Some Missouri abortion opponents, who asked not to be identified, said there is concern within the ranks that the renewed focus on the longstanding embryonic stem-cell issue could hurt their efforts to persuade the General Assembly to approve more abortion restrictions and to take on Planned Parenthood.

Abortion opponents are seeking to end the Medicaid payments that now go to Planned Parenthood for family planning and women’s health services. Those payments come from the federal portion of the Medicaid program. Several states have lost court fights over defunding efforts, while others – notably Texas – have moved forward with defunding.

Klein with Right to Life predicts there will be more legislative action in Missouri next session regarding abortion and stem-cell research.

Klein acknowledges that Amendment 2’s protection of stem-cell research prevents Right to Life from seeking an outright ban on embryonic stem-cell research. Instead, the group is focusing on curbing any possible use of state money for such research.

Among other things, Right to Life and its allies have fought for language in development bills to bar any spending that could end up going for embryonic stem-cell research or cloning. Those fights often have been intense, because some business groups contend the restrictive language has been too broad.

“The research industry does not want any boundaries,” said Klein. “The research industry is just trying to protect their right to take innocent human life.”

Former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., is a longstanding abortion opponent – and a big supporter of stem-cell research, including the use of human embryos.

He adamantly contends that it’s a mistake to mesh abortion with embryonic stem-cell research.

“I believe in medical research,’’ Danforth said. “Embryonic stem-cell research is very promising,’’ citing efforts to tackle debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. One of Danforth’s brothers died of ALS.

Referring to the embryos, Danforth said, “For somebody to say that something that’s smaller than a dot at the end of a sentence is of more value that somebody who is suffering from a terrible disease, is a pretty far-out position.”

He also believes that resurrecting the embryonic stem-cell debate could hurt Republicans next year.

Klein disagrees. “Missouri is a very pro-life state,” she said. “They’ve shown that for years when they get to the polls.”

Democrats counter by noting that their party holds all but one of the statewide elected offices in Jefferson City. And all of those Democrats back embryonic stem-cell research and reproductive rights.

In 2006, the Missouri battle over embryonic stem-cell research and Amendment 2 is widely believed to have helped propel U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to victory.

McCaskill had endorsed Amendment 2, while then-Republican incumbent Jim Talent opposed it.

McCaskill said, “Overall, I believe the stem-cell initiative that was on the ballot was a positive for our campaign. At a crucial moment, it galvanized national support for me.”

She recalls that her office was flooded with donations after actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, campaigned in Missouri for her because of their mutual support for embryonic stem-cell research. Commentator Rush Limbaugh then came under fire for mimicking Fox’s shaky physical movements.

McCaskill contends that those seeking to ban embryonic stem-cell research also are out to restrict invitro fertilization, because the embryos used in research often are the leftovers from the process and donated by the families.

Looking at the debate in Missouri, she added, “The notion you want to make stem-cell research illegal because fetal issue was donated in a handful of Planned Parenthood clinics … doesn’t make sense.”

Right to Life and its allies disagree. And Klein predicts that the debate will propel more social conservatives to flock to the polls next year to elect like-minded candidates.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.