Pressure continues to mount on Missouri General Assembly, Gov. Blunt to provide answers
By Allen Palmeri
March 10, 2005
JEFFERSON CITY – In April of 2002, President George W. Bush laid out his reasoning for calling on the United States Senate to ban human cloning.
“As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity,” the president said. “And therefore, we must prevent human cloning by stopping it before it starts.”
The tension between improving human life and preserving human dignity has been building for the last four years in Missouri, as senators have heard testimony on Senate Bill 160 (SB 160) that would criminalize embryonic stem cell research. The bill has cleared committee for the first time this year, meaning it could be debated before the full Senate as soon as this month.
President Bush’s policy is to increase the research budget of the National Institutes of Health while also strongly supporting a comprehensive law against all human cloning. Bush equates cloning to the “exploitation of human beings.” Lobbyists connected to big business, research institutions and health constituencies in Missouri disagree, calling it therapeutic cloning that needs to be legal for the good of all mankind.
Those opposed to SB 160 seek to retain all options for improving human life, including embryonic stem cells that may one day cure such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries and juvenile diabetes. Those in favor of SB 160 seek to close the door on any possibility of a scientific experiment that would destroy human dignity by creating a human clone. Senators have been weighing both the science and the ethics of the issue as they deliberate what should be sound public policy for Missouri.
The tension has been palpable. Fueling this tension is the terminology that both sides use. Neither side has been yielding to the other’s language.
The “improve human life” group emphasizes the potential to heal debilitating diseases. Their key term is Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), a procedure used to produce cells that can eventually replace damaged, injured or diseased cells. SCNT is presented as the balm of paralytics and the boon of Missouri’s economy. Cures for diseases are bound to be patented and sold, with the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and Washington University in St. Louis leading the way. Scientific advancement for all mankind is championed, and human cloning is a misnomer. The only phrase that matters is therapeutic cloning.
The “preserve human dignity” group identifies human cloning as the natural byproduct of embryonic stem cell research. Their key term is God. He has no limits, they argue, whereas science has boundaries when it comes to providing us with conclusive evidence about the soul of an embryo. Since science has limits, ethics must take over to prevent the possibility of human cloning, which is the term they use instead of therapeutic cloning. By this logic, SCNT, a procedure that may lead to human cloning, must be banned.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt is an anti-abortion Missouri Baptist who believes that life begins at conception. SCNT does not involve a sperm and an egg, and Blunt is open to the idea that the product of SCNT is not a human being. Thus, the governor is on record supporting SCNT. Extending that logic to his public policy, Blunt has looked at SB 160 and has been persuaded that it appears to have been written in opposition to SCNT. Therefore, the governor has said he would “likely veto” it as it is written.
Unlike President Bush, Blunt has yet to use the term “human cloning” in connection with his position on the bill. His spokesman, Spence Jackson, consistently uses SCNT. Jackson did so again on Feb. 17 when asked by The Pathway to clarify the governor’s position on the issue.
Other states have allowed ethics to triumph over science in the debate. Michigan, Iowa, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota all have banned embryonic stem cell research/human cloning. In the process, governors have offered their own moral judgments on the issue. The most recent example is Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who told syndicated columnist Cal Thomas: “Creating human life for research and human experimentation is ethically wrong.”
Does SCNT really lead to that, or is Romney simply misguided? Thomas reported that Romney’s position has “infuriated Harvard scientists.” As the Missouri Senate wrestles with the issue, it is clear that the Stowers Institute and Washington University have yet to reach that level of anger on an issue where the Missouri political establishment appears to be either against the passage of SB 160 or generally neutral on the subject.
Michael Whitehead, immediate past chairman of the deacons at First Baptist Church, Raytown, wrote a letter to Blunt Feb. 14 asking the governor to reconsider his position on SB 160. Whitehead is the legal counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC), but he told Blunt he was writing him as a citizen, not an attorney. As such, Whitehead reminded Blunt, who attends Second Baptist Church, Springfield, of the ethical position of Missouri Baptists on this issue (see MBC resolution on this page). He then pointed out that science is not God in the sense that ethics ought to be invited to the table when lawmakers craft complicated public policy.
“Every human being who ever walked the face of the earth—including Jesus—started out as a one-celled human embryo with 46 chromosomes in his nucleus,” Whitehead wrote. “We were human as we traveled down the fallopian tubes and before we implanted. So are any human beings at a very young stage of development created by SCNT.
“Consequently, creating human life at its embryonic stage by cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer) for the purpose of killing that human life (by harvesting its stem cells after five days development) for the putative benefit of a third person is always and everywhere immoral and no civilized society should ever allow it.”
Cindy Province, who is with the St. Louis Center for Bioethics and Culture, a member of First Baptist Church, Harvester (St. Charles) and the MBC Executive Board, addressed the terminology of the debate.
“Saying that SCNT is not cloning, as some have tried to claim, is incorrect, as SCNT is in fact a cloning technique,” Province said. “The term ‘therapeutic cloning’ simply refers to the cloning of a human embryo in order to destroy it for its stem cells. Likewise, it is incorrect, although this view is often promoted by cloning proponents, to say that that so-called ‘therapeutic’ cloning is somehow not cloning at all unless a baby is born.
“Cloning takes place when an embryo is produced. It is what is done with that cloned embryo that determines whether the cloning is ‘therapeutic,’ in which case the embryo is killed, or ‘reproductive,’ meaning the embryo is implanted in a uterus. The question that is currently before our society is whether we will allow scientists to produce and destroy human embryos for research purposes.”
Whitehead and Province represent the ethical and scientific expertise of the MBC standing firmly on the Word of God in this debate, but it is not clear yet whether Blunt and so-called pro-life Republicans and Democrats will listen. Money talks and there is considerable discussion taking place between research firms, colleges and universities — who are often campaign contributors to politicians and who promise jobs and other goodies if they are allowed to destroy embryos – and Missouri lawmakers. The feeling among pro-life Christians lobbying for the ban is that Blunt is under severe pressure from big business, pro-cloning Republicans who helped bankroll his campaign. Standing with them are the liberal news media of the state, like the Kansas City Star, which editorialized Feb. 7 that criminalizing therapeutic cloning “would be a severe and unnecessary blow for Missouri’s economic prospects, as well as for the hopes of many afflicted people.”
Once Missouri Baptists have had their say on the matter, as is happening in the public forum, contemplative prayer and reflection come into play. Whitehead suggested this approach in the conclusion of his letter to the governor.
“Be assured of our prayers for you and other leaders to have the wisdom of Solomon as you make these decisions,” Whitehead wrote. “If we honor God in building a culture of life, He will honor us, and will bless our homes, and hospitals, and universities, and churches and businesses.”