Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stemming the debate

Back in April, Scott predicted that the increasing rash of smoking bans in the country from state to state would begin to divide the Republican party along its fault lines. It would become the GOP's internal third rail. I have to say I disagree with him in that I don't think a smoking ban is a strong enough issue to divide any party because of two reasons: a) it's long been established that smoking is hazardous to not on the smoker but those around him or her and b) bar attendance has not flagged or faltered a smidge in any of the cities and states where smoking has already been banned, so those crying about the injury of commerce will dry their tears soon enough.

However, I do believe their IS an issue that will begin to make the cracks under the pancake makeup show for the Republican party, and possibly quite soon. That issue is embryonic stem cell research.

Last summer, during the Democratic National Convention, Ron Reagan, often at odds with his father's conservative politics, spoke in favor of supporting stem cell research. Nancy supported his appearance, and she was known as one of the most conservative doyennes in modern Washington history. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed California's Proposition 71 last fall as well, which allocated $3 billion in bonds to support stem cell research in the state, circumventing the federal ban. And Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), despised by many for his conservative politics, has put his name at the top of a bill newly introduced into the Senate this week to open up federal spending for embryonic stem cell research and has threatened that he has the power to override the veto Bush has guaranteed he will put on the measure. Even Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is in on the action.

Many of the measures that come before Congress often pan out based on whatever purpose they might serve, first and foremost, for the Congressional leaders themselves as recipients of special interest funding, favors, kickbacks and tax breaks. This measure is no different, except that many of the members of Congress are elderly white men who are at a point in their lives when dire medical diagnoses begin to pick up steam. In other words, they are at risk, so it is in their interest to help themselves. It just so happens that this measure is beneficial to the electorate as well. Senator Specter is undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease, and admits that the rigor of his radiation regimen has upped the ante for him. But Senator Specter also opposes abortion. More and more Republicans are filing themselves into the camp of what was once considered a more liberal view with regards to medical research because they are realizing the distinction that must be made between ending an existing pregnancy and using a single-celled organism to potentially alter the course of modern medicine for the good of the entire world.

The scientific community argues that opening up further stem cell lines for research (the one's currently available for use as of Bush's 2001 mandate, in which he stated that research could only be done on the existing 20-odd lines, are all considered contaminated or damaged) will possibly lead to cures for such diseases as diabetes, heart failure, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimers, cancer and countless others. Many Senators and Congressmen are aware that they may face one of these maladies at some point in the near future and when I personally look at the list of disease that could be cured, I can think of someone I know who has died or suffers from nearly all of them. In short, there is a great potential to save a lot of lives or at the very least, improve the quality of life for people already ill.

But many on the Right refuse to even consider the bill because they feel that doing work on embryos is akin to abortion since the embryo is no longer viable once it is used for research. The counterpoint to that argument is that embryos from fertility clinics are destroyed anyway once a couple has been successful or stops trying. The bill calls for the cells to be obtained in an ethical manner by seeking the approval of donors by allowing them to put the cell up for "adoption" by another (infertile) couple, storing them, destroying them or giving them to science. President Bush sees that as murder and states that "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake." Tom DeLay concurs: "An embryo is a person. This bill tramples on the moral convictions of an awful lot of people who don't want their tax dollars to be spent for killing innocent human life."

It would seem that the ongoing debate on fetal rights, embryonic determination and at just what point can we call a fetus a human being will be brought into the forefront should this come to the floor. It is still hard to say whether or not Senator Specter can truly overcome Bush's veto power, but recent votes in the House on this issue were not as strongly divided along party lines as they typically are. It was passed earlier this week 238-194, with fifty Republicans in favor. This is a highly positive sign and while I personally have no idea just where I think a "life" begins, I certainly know when it ends and I know how tragic and upsetting the death of a loved one from a debilitating (and conceivably preventable) disease can be. And I would respond to Speaker DeLay to say that tax dollars might be spent to "end" a human life, but those same dollars would be spent to save countless more in the long run.

When I was sixteen, my grandfather, whom I adored, died slowly and frustratingly of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was only 72 and his mental facilities were intact. But he couldn't speak to me to tell me he loved me and he didn't eat solid foods for the last six months of his life. Breathing was laborious because the muscles in his chest stopped functioning. I couldn't visit him without crying because I was heartbroken at the way his body had shut down on him and I was utterly helpless in the struggle he alone faced. There are billions of cells in the human body and the truth is, I hardly ever take the time to get to know just one. I would readily sacrifice an entire strand of hair and all the thousands of cells it contains (to say nothing of my entire left arm) if I thought it would help to save others from suffering from the disease and prevent the people around them from having to endure the pain of watching someone deteriorate in that way. President Bush is being obstinate and narrow-minded in his approach to the potential for saving human life by insisting that we not be allowed to further this type of research.


Mike said...

Funny you posted on this. That was going to be my next post whenever I got time to sit and type for a while. I'll save most of my thoughts for my post, but I'll say this here. I'm against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Note I didn't say I opposed stem cell research, just that I opposed federal funding of it.

Mainline Mom said...

Arlen Spector, conservative? Are you kidding me? He's despised by many in the Republican party because he's a Democrat in GOP clothing. And he is decidedly NOT anti-abortion. He has made a couple of carefully phrased but very thin statements that might lead some mis-informed people to think that, but he has made lots of statements that were decidedly pro-choice and his voting record supports them. He is from my state and I didn't vote for him.

I believe life begins at conception, at the formation of unique DNA, and that's why I am opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Yes, I would love to find cures for all these diseases, but right now there isn't a shred of scientific evidence that these cells will provide that's just a hunch. I didn't even know it was possible to adopt these embryos until recently, and I wish that all frozen embryos would become such snowflakes.

Ben said...

In a way I'm against funding this sort of thing because it's not supposed to be the government's job. On the other hand, i's not like the government doesn't already give a ton of money for medical research, and I really don't have a problem with stem cell research at all.

I don't see this as causing a big tear in the GOP. Fiscal irresponsibility and the nanny state are much more likely to cause splits. Except for some, not all, of the religious right wing, I don't think anyone is so hard core against this as to cause any major fissures.

Mike said...

I agree with Ben in I don't see this specific issue splitting the party. However it is a symptom of a bigger issue that may split the party. That issue is the defecit and government spending. Several conservatives are disappointed with Bush and the Republican Congress for allowing spending to go out of control. I am one of these conservatives. I think they are setting themselves up for a true fiscal conservative to step up and split the party and give the presidency back to the democrats. I think John McCain is going to be the man to do it. We'll have another situation like 1992 where Clinton got 42% percent of the vote and acted as if he had a "mandate".

ORF said...

Do you oppose federal funding for AIDS research? What about cancer? I fail to see how there is a difference between funding something like this versus any other medical research.

MM, just because you didn't vote for Specter doesn't mean he's not a Republican. And what on EARTH are you yakking about snow for? Embryonic stem cell research is far from a "hunch." Doctors have used stem cells for years to treat diseases like leukemia and lymphoma and they have done a considerable amount of testing on mice and rats infected with ALS and other cancers with considerable success at curing illness in those animals. I'm sorry, but I just don't see how not destroying a single cell can be argued over NOT saving the life of a man who has a congenital heart disease which will kill him before his children graduate from high school.

As for spending and the Republicans, well, yeah, they're being pretty effing dumb about that. No surprise there.

Mike said...

Yes. I oppose federal funding of all medical research. It sounds cold and heartless, but that doesn't mean I'm in favor of breast cancer and AIDS. I just think it should be funded by the private sector. You would be surprised, some people would actually do research for free like the old days just because they wanted to find a cure. Now, the government decides who will do the research and it stunts private individuals from getting involved.

ignerens said...

I too am against breast cancer and AIDs. I'm still waiting for a disease that I can really throw my support behind.