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Stem Cell Politics Bad for Republicans

By Froma Harrop

If anything embodies this White House's cracked sense of morality, it has to be the president's decision to veto a bill that would have expanded funding for stem-cell research. How many days until Nov. 7?

Bush isn't running for re-election, but several Republicans who sided with him are. The political calculation is that the veto will appease ultra-conservatives opposed to research that harms embryos -- and will be forgotten by the more than two-to-one majority that wants it.

The math is bad, though. Hostility to a science that may someday find treatments, even cures, for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other afflictions hurts no small group. About 100 million Americans suffer from diseases that stem-cell therapies have the potential to treat.

The moral case for this veto is also out of whack. The "offending" legislation would have allowed federal support for research using embryos that fertility clinics routinely throw out. Note that while Bush and friends portray their stance as a noble defense of the embryo, not one of them has ever lifted a finger to stop the clinics from creating excess embryos or discarding them.

Most Americans fail to see how a tiny cluster of cells carries the same human worth as Uncle John. And if scientists use the cluster to save Uncle John from a fatal disease, wouldn't such work be construed as pro-life? This obvious moral logic helps explain why many opposed to abortion support this research. For example, Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and both Mississippians, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, voted this week for the Senate bill. (The House approved it last year.)

The career most threatened by the stem-cell issue is that of Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican who voted against the expanded funding. Polls show him neck-and-neck with Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, now Missouri's auditor. McCaskill rarely misses an opportunity to talk up stem-cell research, and she does it in conservative farm country, as well as in urban Kansas City and St. Louis.

Adding to the drama, Missouri is home to the Stowers Institute, which wants to go full bore on embryonic stem-cell research. A world-class research center, Stowers has warned that it will not build a second campus in Kansas City if Missouri lawmakers make therapeutic cloning of embryos a felony -- which some have repeatedly tried to do. A ballot referendum this November gives Missouri voters a chance to end the threats against this research.

The issue pops up in New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez is in a tight race with Tom Kean Jr. (son of former Gov. Tom Kean). As a state senator, Kean voted three times against public funding for stem-cell research. He has since done a spin-around, urging Bush not to veto the stem-cell bill and making campaign stops at biotech firms.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is so far behind Democrat Bob Casey Jr. in the polls that it almost doesn't matter what he thinks about embryonic stem-cell research. Aware that most voters badly wanted expanded federal support for this work, he had sponsored two bills designed to confuse the public. One would ban "fetal farming," something no reputable researcher does or dreams of doing. The other would encourage more federal funding for research using adult stem cells, which do not come from embryos. Adult stem-cell research is promising -- but already fully funded. And only embryonic stem cells can be turned into other types of body cells to replace damaged tissues. That's why researchers are so intent on using them.

American lives are on the line, and many voters are not about to forgive the politicians who would rather dump unused embryos down the drain than use them to help treat disease. One doubts somehow that Sen. Jim Talent's efforts to light up St. Louis's Gateway arch in pink during Breast Cancer Awareness Month are going to distract them.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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