BOBBY HARRISON: Legislators pass an ambiguous stem cell bill

JACKSON – Watch Mississippi legislators, as any politicians, long enough and eventually a true picture of what they think of the intellect of the public will emerge.

That picture was crystallized last week in the state House during debate on stem cell research.

True, it is a complex, scientific issue, and no one, certainly not I, has all the facts. But probably no truer words were spoken during the debate that those of plain-spoken Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, who at one point exclaimed, “We are politicians who don't know squat, and we shouldn't be dabbling in this.”

But, alas, the House, like the Senate in previous years and no doubt again before this session ends, did choose to dabble in this controversial issue. It became apparent the House would be dabbling once Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, opted to send the bill to Judiciary B where Chairman Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, is one of the most conservative members of the Legislature of either party, instead of to Public Health where Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, would have killed the legislation.

McCoy's reasoning on the hot-button issue is fodder for another day.

Smith's Judiciary B Committee and eventually the whole House passed a bill that set up a commission to determine what to do with the numerous embryos that were not used in attempts at artificial fertilization or in vitro fertilization.

The result is that the bill does not ban using those embryos for stem cell research in efforts to cure many life-threatening and debilitating illnesses. So in essence, House members said that human life – in its earliest form – can be destroyed for science. The flip side, of course, as I understand it, is that those embryos, to paraphrase Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, are going to be destroyed anyway.

Now what the bill does ban is what is simplistically referred to as cloning – or to be more precise, somatic cell nuclear transfer. This is where it gets real complicated.

Through this process, cells – such as skin or heart – are placed in an unfertilized egg.The egg is never fertilized with a sperm, but through this process stem cells are produced that some say can lead to cures for many diseases.

Whether that research will lead to cures is a question for those way above my pay grade. I would have been saying 40 years ago that organ transplants seemed unlikely, and I still marvel at the success rate of those procedures.

The fact is that apparently the somatic cell nuclear transfer could lead to human cloning.But Mayo, who, remember, pointed out legislators did not know “squat” about what they were voting on, offered an amendment to allow the process to develop stem cells, but to prohibit any attempts at actual human cloning.

Legislators, in passionate debate on the House floor, said they opposed Mayo's amendment because it would destroy life. The amendment was defeated. Yet, these same life-loving legislators approved the bill that would allow embryos that were created for the original intent of making a baby to be used in research and destroyed.

One of three things is happening here. The most likely is that legislators did not know “squat” about what they were voting on. I challenge constituents to have legislators explain to them what the bill does and does not do.

Another possibility is that some legislators – particularly conservative Republicans – do oppose all types of stem cell research, both using fertilized embryos and the cloning process, but voted for what they could get.

And here is the third thing going on. Some legislators realize that many people support stem cell research and did not want to be perceived as voting against it. Yet, they also did not want to be accused of voting for cloning.

They figure their constituents won't understand the difference between cloning to make another human and cloning to produce stem cells for research. So, they make a vote that in reality makes no sense because they have no faith in the electorate to understand complex issues.

The disturbing truth is that many made a vote not to preserve life, but to preserve their political careers.

Bobby Harrison is chief of the Daily Journal's Capitol Bureau. His e-mail address is bharri9015@aol.com, and the bureau's telephone number is (601) 353-3119.

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