Mo. Senator Opposes Embryonic Stem Cell Ballot Initiative

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Republican Sen. Jim Talent came out in opposition to a proposed ballot measure protecting embryonic stem cell research Monday as a group supporting the measure turned in petition signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Talent’s long-awaited announcement put him on the side of Missouri’s largest religious and anti-abortion groups in an election year debate that is splitting Republicans. The measure is backed by the state’s biggest business and medical groups.

‘‘I personally cannot support the initiative because I’ve always been opposed to human cloning, and this measure would make cloning human life at the earliest stage a constitutional right,’’ Talent said in a written statement.

That assertion is denied by supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment, which specifically states that it bans human cloning. The measure would guarantee that all federally allowed stem cell research and treatments could occur in Missouri.

Talent’s likely Democratic opponent, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, announced her support for the measure some time ago. But Talent had declined to take a position.

In the meantime, groups such as Missouri Right to Life and the state’s Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist denominations came out against it, while the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the state’s leading research institutions supported it.

Talent’s announcement came after the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures turned in 288,991 petition signatures Monday to the secretary of state’s office. It’s now up to local and state election officials to verify the petitions contain the roughly 150,000 names of registered voters needed to qualify for the ballot. That process must be completed by Aug. 8.

McCaskill said the large number of petition signatures shows the measure has widespread public support.

‘‘Stem cell research holds the promise of saving lives and alleviating the pain and suffering endured by so many Missourians,’’ McCaskill said in a written statement before Talent’s announcement. ‘‘This initiative enables Missouri doctors and researchers to be at the forefront of lifesaving research.’’

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

The initiative has proved controversial because it would allow a certain form of embryonic stem cell research that opponents contend destroys human life at its earliest stages.

In somatic cell nuclear transfer, researchers remove the nucleus of an egg and replace it with other cells, such as from a patient’s skin. The product then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish and the stem cells are removed, which destroys the embryo.

The ballot language does not consider the scientifically created embryo to be a human life. It defines human cloning as occurring when scientists try to implant that embryo into a woman.

Talent in February withdrew as co-sponsor of a federal bill that would criminalize all human cloning. He said then that a potentially new procedure — called altered nuclear transfer — could provide a middle ground by altering the genetic material before it is transferred into an egg, thus not necessarily resulting an embryo.

‘‘I will continue to support new alternatives and research that hold promise to give us exactly the stem cells we want to relieve human suffering without cloning,’’ Talent said in Monday’s statement.

A McCaskill campaign spokeswoman suggested Talent was fluctuating as he kept trying to appease people.

‘‘He was against it before he was for it, and now he’s against it again,’’ said McCaskill spokeswoman Adrianne Marsh. ‘‘Missourians are confused. Obviously Senator Talent is confused himself, because the initiative strictly prohibits human cloning.’’

Opponents have challenged in court that the ballot title is misleading by stating that it bans human cloning. They have lost so far, but plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court, said Jaci Winship, executive director of the opposition group Missourians Against Human Cloning.

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