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Talent Shifts Stance on Stem-Cell Research


In Missouri this year, along with state and local races, there's likely to be a hot political issue on the ballot. Hospitals, patient groups and universities are working to pass a state Constitutional amendment to protect stem cell research from being banned in the state. Pro-life groups say stopping the amendment is their top priority.

Caught in the middle are politicians like Missouri Republican Senator Jim Talent who rely on the support of pro-life groups. From Kansas City, NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN: Missouri is home to institutions actively involved in stem cell research, the Stowers Institute in Kansas City and Washington University in St. Louis to name just two. The state also hosts a large influential pro-life movement that's played a key role in electing Republicans to statewide office.

The two groups are facing off over a proposed Constitutional amendment, the first propose by any state that would prevent Missouri from putting restrictions on stem cell research that go beyond federal regulations.

Specifically it's intended to stop Missouri legislators from taking steps to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer, a cloning procedure used in stem cell research. Ads about the amendment have already begun running and elected officials are on the hot seat. The questions they're all being asked is, do they support it or oppose it?

No one gets that question more than Senator Jim Talent, a Republican with strong pro-life credentials who's facing a tight race for re-election. On the floor of the Senate, Talent said he's been giving stem cell research a lot of thought.

JIM TALENT: Mr. President, I spent the better of the year researching this issue, meeting with people on all sides, with groups who oppose cloning embryos to get stem cells, scientists who support it.

ALLEN: Talent surprised many when he launched into a long detailed speech in which he announced that he's changing his position on federal legislation that would ban cloning even when used in stem cell research. Talent said he could no longer support a bill that he had been co-sponsoring. The reason he said was that he believes new technology might make it possible soon to use cloning to produce stem cells without at the same time creating an embryo.

The procedure, Talent explained, is called altered nuclear transfer, or ANT.

TALENT: ANT thus transcends the more dilemma which has heretofore prevented any legislation from passing. It renders moot the question of whether human life begins at creation or implantation of an embryo since the entity that ANT could create would not have, at its inception, the organizational and developmental capability to be considered a human life.

ALLEN: If Talent was hoping the detailed explanation of why he was changing his position might deflect criticism from pro-life supporters, he was mistaken.

LARRY WEBER: We're very concerned that he has withdrawn his support for human life at its earliest stages.

ALLEN: Larry Weber of Missouri's Catholic Conference says he found Talent's statements about why he was changing his position inconsistent. ANT is a theoretical, untried concept, and although Talent says he still opposes the cloning procedure used in stem cell research, he's taking his name off a bill banning it.

Weber predicts that inconsistency is going to hurt Senator Talent on Election Day.

WEBER: His base of pro-life supporters may not be as inclined to volunteer in his campaign offices to go door to door to make the small sort of contributions which have been so much a hallmark of Senator Talent's previous races. In a close race I can't see how this isn't going to adversely affect his re-election chances.

ALLEN: It's not just Jim Talent. Stem cell research is driving a wedge between anti-abortion organizations and other top Republican officials, including Governor Matt Blunt. The proposed amendment draws broad support from research institutions and medical groups, and also from business leaders who believe stem cell research can be key to Missouri's economic future.

Donn Rubin, who's helping spearhead the campaign for the stem cell amendment, says polling shows that the measure has strong support, both among Democrats and Republicans.

DONN RUBIN: It cuts across party, it cuts across political leaning, and another thing that polling shows which I think is very important to this controversy is that the more people know and understand about stem cell research and about its promise and about what it is and what it's not, then the more supportive they are of the research.

ALLEN: So far Senator Talent has refused to say whether or not he'll support the Missouri stem cell referendum. Meanwhile his probable Democratic opponent in the upcoming Senate race, Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill has used the issue to go on the offensive. She recently held a news conference outside Kansas City's Stowers Institute to announce her strong support for the stem cell referendum. Polls show the race to be a dead heat and the stem cell issue could be a deciding factor.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.