The Magazine

The Stem Cell Hard Sell

Missouri's clone wars.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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St. Louis

MICHAEL J. FOX was right--at least partially. "What you do in Missouri," Fox said in his now famous TV ad, "matters to millions of Americans--Americans like me." He never mentioned Amend ment 2. He never mentioned the word "cloning." He merely endorsed Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, and spoke against GOP incumbent Jim Talent. But the subtext was clear: Vote for McCaskill--and while you're at it, vote "yes" on Amendment 2.

"As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research," said Fox, a longtime and visibly suffering Parkinson's patient, in a spot that first aired during the World Series. "In Missouri you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope."

This was misleading. Talent once cosponsored a Senate bill to ban human cloning, but then withdrew his name last February, fearing it might imperil a new form of research called "altered nuclear transfer," which can yield embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos. Talent supports that research--indeed, he supports any form of stem cell research that leaves embryos intact and doesn't entail cloning. While Talent opposes Amendment 2, the failure of that amendment would not "criminalize" anything.

But Fox was correct to imply that the fate of Amendment 2 will reverberate far beyond Missouri. What is Amendment 2? Depends on whom you ask. Supporters insist it would write a ban on human cloning into the Missouri constitution and codify an ethical framework for stem cell research. Opponents claim it would actually legalize cloning despite appearing to outlaw it. Who's right?

Donn Rubin, chairman of the amendment-backing Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, puts it bluntly: "There really is no shame among the opponents." Last week, in a testy radio debate on Missouri's KWMU, Rubin stressed that Amendment 2 would prevent the creation of "Dolly the human" and ensure that any form of "somatic cell nuclear transfer" (SCNT) allowed under federal law would also be permissible in Missouri. The urgency of the amendment, he added, stemmed from recent efforts in the state legislature to prohibit SCNT.

According to Rubin, the "reprehensible" and "drastic" bills being mulled in Jefferson City would penalize "doctors and patients" and "throw them in jail with drug dealers and arsonists." Indeed, he said, by criminalizing medical research, the anti-SCNT legislation would mandate that a cured patient's first steps "out of a wheelchair" would be "into a jail cell."

His foil, Cathy Ruse, spokeswoman for Missourians Against Human Cloning, treated these remarks with bemused derision. "That is hysterical," she said. "No one wants to jail doctors and patients." Remember, said Ruse, "Embryonic stem cell research is already legal today--it's happening across the state." Amendment 2 would not change that. But it would carve out a constitutional right to perform SCNT--which, according to Ruse, is the same thing as cloning.

That gets to the crux of the debate: What qualifies as "cloning"? And does somatic cell nuclear transfer fall under that rubric? In SCNT, a nucleus taken from a body (somatic) cell, which contains the DNA of an organism, is transferred into an egg cell that has had its own nucleus removed, thus creating an ovum that is a genetic replica of the original body cell. This egg, if implanted and brought to term, would produce a cloned organism.

The text of Amendment 2 adds up to nearly 2,000 words. Slogging through it can be headache-inducing, given the dense biomedical jargon. But it states a few points quite plainly: "Any stem cell research permitted under federal law may be conducted in Missouri, and any stem cell therapies and cures permitted under federal law may be provided to patients in Missouri." Also: "No person may clone or attempt to clone a human being." So far, no disputes.

But then comes the definition of "cloning": "to implant in a uterus or attempt to implant in a uterus anything other than the product of fertilization of an egg of a human female by a sperm of a human male for the purpose of initiating a pregnancy that could result in the creation of a human fetus, or the birth of a human being." In other words, cloning is equated with implantation.

SCNT is in fact the first, necessary step in cloning. But as long as the egg it produces is kept in a test tube, Amendment 2 declares that it is not a clone. The embryos created with this technique are a source of human stem cells, and the right to create them is the point of Amendment 2--hence, it refers to "any scientific or medical research involving human stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization blastocysts or from somatic cell nuclear transfer."