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Lawmaker's absence allows for stem cell vote

By Maria Hickey, KWMU / AP

Jefferson City, MO – A Missouri House committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would prevent a procedure used in embryonic stem cell research.

Last year, voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment to protect all forms of stem cell research allowed under federal law in Missouri.

The proposed legislation would change the definition of human cloning in the amendment, in order to prohibit one procedure.

The bill had been deadlocked in the House Health Care Policy until Tuesday, when one member was not present. Committee Chairman Wayne Cooper called the vote.

Donn Rubin, the chairman for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, says Representative Cooper manipulated the process: "Rather than holding a vote, and he had six weeks to hold a vote in his committee when all members were present, he lay in wait for a key member to be absent and called a vote without any advance notice."

Five members in the health committee voted for the measure. The four remaining members walked out in protest.

The effort behind this new amendment is to prevent a certain form of embryonic stem cell research, called somatic cell nuclear transfer. Anti-abortion activists say the research method ends life at its earliest stages.

The constitutional change proposed by Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, strikes at the heart of the voter-approved language. The measure would reword the ban on human cloning to make the embryonic research procedure illegal.

Opponents of the measure tried to discuss it, propose changes and argue the debate was unfair and rushed.

"There are a lot of potential benefits of SCNT. I see this as a religious issue, not a logic or scientific issue," said Rep. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, a doctor who supports stem cell research. "He used the powers of the chairman to his advantage."

Chairman Rep. Wayne Cooper, R-Camdenton, a doctor and co-sponsor of the measure, limited discussion to 15 minutes and then ordered a vote on the proposal.

Supporters said that's the way the process works.

"The rules are when you're in the majority you get to make the rules," committee vice chairwoman Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, said after the vote. "It's your job to show up at your committee meetings."

But the measure still has a long way to go. It first goes to the House Rules Committee, which must sign off and can set limits on debate before it goes to the floor.

Rules Committee chairman Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton, said he personally opposes the measure but would let the committee decide if it goes forward. Beyond that, House leaders determine which measures will be debated. If it won House approval, the Senate also would need to agree to the same language to send the issue to voters.

Lembke's proposed amendment would ban human cloning defined as any creation of an embryo other than by a sperm and egg, making the embryonic cloning procedure illegal.

The amendment voters approved also said it bans human cloning, but that definition is limited to placing a scientifically cloned embryo in a womb to grow into a baby.

"We are pleased that this clear, complete ban on human cloning is headed toward the full House for the debate this important issue deserves," Jaci Winship, executive director of Missourians Against Human Cloning, said in a written statement Tuesday.

In the research procedure, the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg is removed and replaced with another cell, such as a skin cell, containing a person's DNA. The cell is then stimulated to grow and divide, and the resulting cells are harvested, destroying the embryo.

Lembke's amendment also would specifically allow the Legislature to determine restrictions and funding for health care research, while the voter-approved measure prevents lawmakers from cutting funding to entities because they conduct stem cell research.

A similar measure was introduced in the Senate but hasn't yet been heard by a committee.