"I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me. -- U.S. Rep. Willard Duncan Vandiver, 1899.
Vandiver's words spoken more than a century ago helped to popularize his home state's unofficial designation as the "Show-Me State." Whether they still hold true will be tested Nov. 7 when voters try to wrap their minds around a stem cell amendment that is long on "frothy eloquence" and short on "show me."
Unfortunately, voters have been distracted from the meat of the initiative by the recent controversy over a political ad by actor Michael J. Fox -- who suffers from Parkinson's disease and favors embryonic stem cell research -- and radio host Rush Limbaugh's tasteless attack on Fox, suggesting that the actor was exaggerating his symptoms to gain political traction.
Fox, though he later admitted to not having read the Missouri amendment, wasn't faking his symptoms. But the authors of the initiative seem bent on faking out voters by using language that seems deliberately misleading.
To be clear: Approval of "Constitutional Amendment 2" would mean approval of a constitutional right to clone.
Yet, when voters go to the polls, that's not what they'll read on the ballot. Instead, they'll vote on a bullet-point summary of the 2,100-word amendment that reads like a pro-life manifesto blended with progressive compassion.
Among other things, the ballot promises: to ensure that people in Missouri have access to cures and therapies; to ban human cloning; and prohibit state and local governments from interfering with lawful research.
What's not to love? Never mind that stem cell research of every kind is legal today and happening in Missouri. Or that the people of Missouri are not now, nor will they ever be, denied access to cures and therapies of whatever sort.
As for cloning, no one should be surprised to hear that it depends on what one's definition is. By using less-familiar scientific language, supporters of the stem cell initiative effectively have redefined "cloning" to mean only reproductive cloning -- that is, implantation of a lab-created embryo in a woman's womb for the purpose of creating a human being.
While the amendment would ban that procedure, it would allow "somatic cell nuclear transfer," which is the widely accepted scientific definition of "cloning."
Whether one clones an embryo for birth, or clones an embryo for research, a clone is a clone is a clone.
Another controversial piece of the amendment, which is not mentioned in the ballot summary, concerns the sale and purchase of human eggs for stem cell research. Although the proposed amendment purports to forbid such sales, it includes a loophole: Researchers may obtain eggs from fertility clinics and reimburse for costs that may include thousands paid to egg suppliers for donations.
Bottom line: If the amendment is approved, the Missouri Constitution may protect human egg commerce from future regulation.
Minority groups, meanwhile, have raised concerns that underprivileged African-American women will be exploited for their eggs, the extraction of which is painful and not without risk.
Sentient humans are probably wondering why Missouri needs a constitutional amendment for embryonic stem cell research when it is already legal.
Advocates say they're seeking protection from interference in scientific research that is legal; critics say the amendment is to prevent future regulation or legislation that would impede cloning research.
Given the confusing language of the amendment, one can objectively conclude that whatever the intent, voters aren't being dealt a straight hand.
More easily understood than the amendment's wording is how the initiative got this far. As another Hollywood actor once said: Show me the money.
The driving force behind the proposed amendment is the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which has raised $30.1 million to push the initiative.
Of that money, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that more than $29 million has come from James and Virginia Stowers, the billionaire founders of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, a biomedical research company in Kansas City, Mo., that focuses on finding solutions to gene-based diseases.
Their new entity, BioMed Valley Discoveries, is a for-profit enterprise designed to market scientific discoveries.
Money talks, and $29 million can buy a lot of frothy eloquence. But what the ballot promises and what the amendment affirms are not a precise match. Maybe voters are smart enough to read between the bullet points, but a clone of Vandiver would be helpful right about now.