Stem cell ideology trumps reason

October 29, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have expanded funding for embryonic stem cell research and given Americans who had embryos frozen for fertility treatments the option of donating them to medical science. The bill received wide support from intelligent people, particularly scientists who see promise in the research. Fifty-one Republicans sided with Democrats to approve the measure. Nancy Reagan, queen mum of the Republican Party, supported efforts to expand research for its potential as a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

But this year, after the Senate approved the measure, President Bush vetoed the bill, saying in July: "If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would, for the first time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and I'm not going to allow it."

Bush called the new production of embryonic stem cells the "taking of human life," even if the embryos used in research would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.

The opposition to embryonic stem cell research is grounded in the religious view that life begins at conception, the same argument used against abortion.

The professional quarterback Kurt Warner, who used to play for the St. Louis Rams, went on television last week to oppose a Missouri constitutional amendment to allow embryonic stem cell research in that state.

"To pass an amendment that allows for the opportunity to abort and to kill a life to me makes no sense," Warner said. "It contradicts everything I believe, everything that I stand for and I think everything that Missouri stands for. ... It becomes aborting after conception, aborting fetuses, using for research purposes. It also has to do with the fertilization of eggs for the sole purpose of killing them and doing research."

Warner's language is strong and familiar, based in ideology and not science. But you know exactly how this devout Christian feels. He uses his celebrity status to help opponents of embryonic stem cell research just as the actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, uses his to help U.S. Senate candidate Ben Cardin, a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, win over Michael Steele here in Maryland.

The other day, the Steele campaign countered with an ad of its own, featuring the candidate's younger sister, Monica Turner. Turner is a pediatrician, and she reveals in the spot that she has multiple sclerosis.

"There's something you should know about Michael Steele," Turner says. "He does support stem cell research, and he cares deeply for those who suffer from disease." Of course, Steele cares about people with disease - and he loves puppies. But he doesn't exactly support stem cell research to the degree his sister suggests. He doesn't support the use of embryos to develop new stem cell lines, to replace some of the 60 that researchers say they have found contaminated or unusable.

Soon after Bush's veto last summer, Steele refused to answer reporters' questions about how he would have voted on the bill, but he ultimately stated his support for the president's position. During one of the most dull-headed moments of his campaign, Steele likened embryonic stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments. Though he apologized for the statement, it was clear that Steele, an anti-abortion Catholic, opposes the area of stem cell research that experts in the field believe the government should support.

His opponent, Cardin, backed expansion of the research.

That was the choice of science over ideology.

That was the choice of a government informed by science over a government limiting the cause of science because of religious beliefs.

Michael Steele and some Republicans might not like that Michael Fox and the Democrats boxed them into that corner, but they were there already. Fox merely flashed a light on it.

Since this new area of stem cell research started to emerge in the late 1990s, it has been controlled by the government and assessed a number of times by prestigious panels of scientists who reported findings to Congress. Many Republican leaders, such as Arlen Specter and Bill Frist, gave it careful consideration before deciding to back the research.

The stem cell issue didn't cross a moral boundary, as President Bush stated; it crossed a partisan one, and though many Republicans joined the president in his bow to the GOP's conservative base, many others were listening to science - and to their constituents. Now, stem cell research could be a real wedge issue in next week's election.

The quest for knowledge and understanding fuels the arc of progress of American society, and a society that values brilliance, ingenuity and innovation should not be erecting obstacles to science in the public interest. That doesn't mean we ignore ethical questions. But it means that, ultimately, we separate the interests of church from the interests of state. It means we respect and defer to those who know better than we do - the men and women in the lab coats, the ones who have the knowledge, understanding and integrity to take us to a healthier future. It means we hold objective science to be a precious national resource and demand a government informed by it.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks. And try your luck at Dan's Maryland Politics Quiz at baltimoresun.com/rodricksquiz.

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