JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The battle over embryonic stem cell research moved into the pews yesterday, as Roman Catholic priests across Missouri urged churchgoers to oppose a petition seeking a constitutional amendment that would protect the work.
The petition drive was announced last month by business leaders, patient advocates, and researchers as a response to legislative efforts to ban a stem cell effort known as therapeutic cloning.
Missouri's Catholic dioceses oppose it. Priests have been asked to begin a campaign aimed at keeping Catholics from signing the petition.
At St. Peter Catholic Church, across the street from the state Capitol, the Rev. James Smith mentioned Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief.
Smith, speaking of Goebbels, compared the cultivation of human embryos for research to the gruesome experiments performed on those exiled to concentration camps in World War II.
''The similarities of the arguments behind the destruction of life by the Nazis and the use of human embryos are scary," he told worshipers at a morning Mass. ''There are real human lives that need our support and protection."
The petition seeks to put a measure on the 2006 ballot that would amend the state constitution to state that stem cell research, therapies, and cures allowed under federal law also are permitted in Missouri.
The measure would prohibit human cloning, which is defined as the effort to create a baby by implanting an embryo that was not fertilized by sperm.
Supporters argue that stem cells may have the potential to cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other life-threatening diseases.
Opponents say that the use of embryonic stem cells involves creating human life to destroy it.
''Human embryos are not potential human beings. Human embryos are human beings with potential," John Weaver, who is deacon of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Columbia, told worshipers yesterday.
Donn Rubin, chairman of the petition coalition, Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, said surveys show most that Missouri Catholics support stem cell research. Matt Blunt, the governor, and former Senator John C. Danforth, a Missourian who is an Episcopal priest and a former UN ambassador, are among the measure's supporters.
The petition drive must have about 145,000 valid signatures by May 9 if the proposed measure is to secure a spot on the ballot for November 2006.
A constitutional amendment would require a simple majority of voters to be enacted and would supersede any state laws.