Tuesday, August 02, 2005
by Wayne Besen
Embryonic stem cells show remarkable promise because they may be able to transform themselves into any human body part. Just last week, for example, they miraculously helped Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist grow a spine!
Frist surprised colleagues and his benefactors on the extreme right by announcing his support for a House bill that would ease restrictions on federal spending on studies of stem cell colonies or lines derived from frozen embryos that would otherwise be thrown away. His backing of this research is a huge step forward for science, but Neo-Puritan leaders made it clear that it was a leap backward for his transparent presidential ambitions.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay struck first, calling a news conference to denounce his powerful colleague in an unusually harsh manner. He said that a presidential candidate who supported "creating commodities out of embryos would have a hard time appealing to the vast majority of Republicans in this country."
"I'm brokenhearted," said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Focus on the Family's James Dobson released a statement saying that if Frist made this decision to bolster his presidential hopes, it would backfire, as Christian conservatives would turn the other cheek.
"If that is the case, he has gravely miscalculated," Dobson said. "To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America's values voters as the worst kind of betrayal choosing politics over principal."
This may well cost Frist his dream of the presidency. With no clear-cut favorite, there will be a ruthless scramble for the 2008 GOP nomination. Whoever wins the primaries will likely need the support of the extreme right wing, especially in crucial states like Iowa and South Carolina. The exception being that a centrist could slip in if right wing support is divided among several candidates,
Frist's problem is that he has veered so far to the right that he has practically no mainstream following. If he must rely on centrist voters to win in a divided field, he will not stand up well against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or Rudy Giuliani.
I believe that Frist took the plunge because as risky as it was to cross Dobson, it was riskier to ignore the promise of stem cell research. Imagine if his opposition would have forced this work overseas, where new discoveries were made that included cures for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and even AIDS.
How would a doctor rightfully labeled "anti-cure" have any credibility? Such a scenario would not only keep him from the White House, it also would severely undermine his standing in the medical profession. Frist would be left holding the bag and looking like a medieval medicine man. Frist already took a hit to integrity when he viewed a videotape of Terri Schiavo and suggested that she might be able to recover, even though he is a cardiologist and not a neurologist. The final autopsy report on Schiavo contradicted the good doctor's learned opinion and made him look more the smooth political operator than the respected surgeon who performs smooth operations.
If embryonic stem cell research pans out, it will be a trump card in every debate against the right and undermine their growing scientific propaganda machine. Picture going against Dobson on TV after several cures for diseases were found and saying, "didn't you say that stem cell research was 'suspect'"? It appears Frist is wise enough to avoid falling into this likely trap.
President George W. Bush, on the other hand, will put his legacy at risk if he follows through on his threat to veto the stem cell bill. Not only will this potentially mean loss of life, but also lost jobs and U.S. prestige.
If America does not pursue this research, monumental scientific breakthroughs may occur in foreign countries. This will mean losing coveted high tech and science professionals to European competitors. Imagine the brain drain that might occur if the U.S. is considered hostile to science. Finally, think of all the billions of dollars the U.S. would lose if such life altering discoveries were made elsewhere. Bush and his fundamentalist allies have the very real potential to severely degrade America's future.
If Bush chooses this path, the Democrats ought to pound him with television and print ads for weeks. These ads should feature people who have various diseases who are angry with Bush. They should also point out that Nancy Reagan and many prominent Republicans support such research. This is an issue that could cause a political earthquake in a few years. Sen. Frist was smart to get on the correct side of this fault line.
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