As a cancer survivor with an adult-stem-cell transplant under my belt, I'm not exactly neutral on the issue of embryonic-stem-cell research. It may end up being the best chance to save my life. But this column is not about my life or even the lives of millions of others who could be cured of everything from cancer to Parkinson's to Alzheimer's. It's about the political life of this country.
My perspective could be skewed (all politics is local), but I have a gut feeling that President Bush is headed for a serious bruising on this issue, as are at least some of the 180 Republicans and 14 Democrats who voted last week against the stem-cell-research bill that passed the House. These members may look back ruefully on this vote as one that helped get them tossed out of office. After all, every American who has a relative with one of these diseases--which means nearly every American--is beginning to understand the issue in a new way: it's "pro-cure" versus "anti-cure," with the anti-stem-cell folks in danger of being swept into the medical wastebin of history.
One of the things that keeps politics fascinating is that it's always mutating. In 2004, stem-cell research began as a peripheral issue, with almost all Republicans supporting Bush's 2001 compromise (even as the scientific "facts" he cited fell apart) and most Democrats believing it was too morally charged to dwell on. After Ron Reagan's fine speech at the Democratic convention and his mother Nancy's outspoken support for research, the issue moved a few notches higher on the agenda and swung some votes to the Democrats.
Now the brilliant scientific breakthrough in South Korea is further ripening the debate. Last year Bush and his surrogates could plausibly argue that this was all theoretical because any stem-cell cures were decades down the road. Research is always iffy, but today we can reasonably hope that saving lives is much closer. Will the United States be part of the most exciting medical research of our time? With global competitors poised to eat our lunch, a few private and state-funded efforts won't be enough. "You can't do research with your feet bound and one hand tied behind your back," says Jerome Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School.
Bioethical blowhard Leon Kass of the University of Chicago conned Bush into seeing the issue as morally complex, but the rest of the world understands that it's simple enough--reproductive cloning (to create Frankensteins), no; embryonic-stem-cell research (to cure diseases), yes. (The phrase "therapeutic cloning" should be retired.) Enshrining this basic distinction in law is a better bulwark against the "slippery slope" problem than hair-splitting limitations. Most nations understand this. Only Bush bitter-enders and the pope are in the perverse position of valuing the life of an ailing human being less than that of a tiny clump of cells no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.
The stem-cell debate has been linked to abortion, as if depriving science of the use of these cells somehow extends "the culture of life." But here the "pro-life" position should argue for therapeutic research. Under Bush's stem-cell policy, 400,000 surplus blastocysts at fertility clinics are eventually thrown in the trash instead of a few thousand being used to enhance life. To be intellectually coherent, Bush would have to shut down all in vitro clinics, depriving millions of infertile couples of the chance for a child. Fat chance.
Most Americans still don't know all these details, but they're beginning to understand that religious extremists are hijacking the political system and robbing us of our essential national character--faith in the future. House GOP leaders were annoyed recently when the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate group, conducted polls showing support for stem-cell research even in very conservative districts.
The next battle is in the Senate, where Sen. Sam Brownback now says he will filibuster the stem-cell bill. This will split the GOP, with stem-cell supporter Orrin Hatch confident he has the 15 GOP votes (along with 45 Democrats') necessary to break the filibuster and get it passed. The votes probably aren't there in either chamber to override Bush's promised veto (the first of his presidency), but publicity from this drama will drive support for federal research even higher.
Unless there's another war, stem cells will become one of the defining issues of the 2006 campaign. Look for smart Democrats to run ads with relatives of the afflicted ("My sister has Parkinson's," "My father has Alzheimer's") pointing out that Congressman X is so extreme, he voted against a bill supported by many Republicans to begin curing these diseases. This will inevitably lead to backpedaling and compromise and the victory of a broad-based "pro-cure movement" that may help save not just my life, but your cousin's or your mother's or your own.