Mixed messages muddle stem-cell issue

As both sides of the debate claim progress in Missouri, the only clear thing is that it has created confusion

As both sides of the debate claim progress in Missouri, the only clear thing is that it has created confusion

Now that the midterm elections have ended and Democrats have taken control of Congress, certain issues are likely going to come to the forefront in the next two years. One such issue is embryonic stem-cell research, specifically the battle between moral and ethical implications and the scientific potential of the research, which has caused a bombardment of strong and sometimes mixed messages from both sides of the issue.

The issue attracted national attention when a campaign endorsement for Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who was elected to the Senate, ran featuring a visibly Parkinson's-stricken Michael J. Fox, who asked voters in the state to support Amendment 2.

The amendment protects the rights of researchers in the state to conduct embryonic stem-cell research already allowed under federal law.

Nowhere is the delineation between sides more apparent than in the shorthand messaging of the bill, with advocates referring to it as the stem-cell amendment and detractors referring to it as the cloning amendment. With parties on one side of the issue calling the research cloning and the other calling it a bridge to potential cures, voters had to wade through the proverbial noise to make their own decision about the issue.

Compounding the confusion is the fact that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) refers to the somatic nuclear cell transfer (SNCT) process contained in the amendment as therapeutic cloning.

Some in the scientific community are mulling a new title so as not to evoke the negative association. "Human cloning is illegal," says Don Ralbovsky, who handles communications for NIH. "What we are talking about is therapeutic cloning."

The major state opposition group to Amendment 2, Missourians Against Human Cloning (MAHC), conducted an aggressive educational campaign to sway voters to knock down the amendment, arguing that, despite the clear language in the amendment that bans human cloning, the SNCT process itself constitutes cloning.

Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, pro-stem-cell advocates, did not return calls.

Missourians sent Amendment 2 through 51% to 49%. Supporters of the amendment touted the victory at the polls (and the victories of other candidates with pro-stem-cell research stances). But even the MAHC claimed a victory of sorts, through the 49% of Missourians who said "no" to the amendment.

"It says a lot about the strength of the coalition that we had as strong a showing as we did," says Jaci Winship, executive director of MAHC, "and that we could be able to educate as many people as we did to vote 'no' because the amendment was written very deceptively."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is a general stem-cell supporter, said on November 8 that the issue had importance beyond one state.

"If Virginia and Montana go to the Democrats [which they did], this election will ultimately turn to what happened in Missouri, and we lost it because of stem cells, what Michael J. Fox had to say," Specter told a press gathering.

MAHC says that it plans to move forward with its opposition to Missouri's new law and opposition to the issue on a national level. Missouri is now the example for what may occur in other states; Florida is already considering a stem-cell amendment on the 2008 ballot.

Yet, Missouri should not only stand as an example of what the legislative outcome might be, but also as an illustration of how a bombardment of messaging can often mean confusion, not clarity. While Jim Sedlak, VP for anti-stem-cell group American Life League, told Reuters, "The public is being very misled," Gail Pressberg, co-author of the book Stem Cell Research: Promise and Politics, was quoted in the same article: "We're at a real tipping point. The public has been educated."

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