Party of Stem Cells

The Democrats’ new wedge issue.

There was precious little discussion of domestic policy at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Boston, but what discussion there was focused to a surprising degree on a topic that, four years ago, was too obscure to merit political debate. That topic was stem-cell research. The phrase “stem cell” was uttered 20 times from the FleetCenter stage, always to thunderous applause. That was more than twice the number of times anybody mentioned the word “unemployment” (nine) and 10 times the number of times anybody mentioned the phrase “woman’s right to choose” (two). It was damn near the number of times anybody pronounced a word that is arguably more sacred than any other in the Democrats’ lexicon: “equality” (22).

Obviously, discussion of embryonic stem cells got a boost from a decision by the late Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan Jr., to address the Democrats on this issue. But it’s easy to make too much of this. The Gipper’s son has never associated himself with the Republican party—he’s a registered independent—and he has stated publicly that he didn’t vote for President Bush in 2000. (He’s also described himself publicly as an atheist, which would disqualify him from ever running for office under the GOP banner.) Ron Reagan didn’t put stem cells front and center in Boston; stem cells put Ron Reagan front and center in Boston. The great promise of the stem-cell issue is that it may peel many real Republicans away from Bush in 2004.

Besides Reagan, seven other speakers at the convention discussed the need to expand stem-cell research. These included nominee John Kerry (“What if we have a president who believes in science so we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem-cell research to treat illness and save millions of lives?”) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (“We also need to lift the ban on stem-cell research”). Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a quadriplegic, spoke strongly in favor of stem-cell research even though he opposes abortion. (It is therefore not true, as former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn alleged in this space last week, that there was “no room at the inn for pro-life speakers.” Though in fairness to Flynn, Langevin made only a vague, passing reference to “protecting life at every stage.”) Opposition to legal abortion while favoring increased federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research may sound inconsistent, and in a broad philosophical sense it probably is. But since embryonic stem-cell research appropriates tissue from embryos that have already been discarded, you can, at least in a narrowly practical sense, logically oppose abortion while favoring increased stem-cell research. Republican Sens. Trent Lott, Thad Cochran, Lamar Alexander, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell all take this stance.

The Democrats’ eagerness to discuss stem cells is strikingly different from their attitude before Aug. 9, 2001. On that day, Bush announced his decision to fund embryonic stem-cell research only on what he claimed were about 60 viable cell lines then in existence. No future embryonic stem-cell lines, Bush decreed, would receive federal funding. (Even at the time, it was obvious that 60 was an absurdly inflated number. Three years later, only 21 of the “grandfathered” embryonic cell lines are viable.) Until Bush uncorked this awkward compromise, those few Democrats who knew what stem cells were felt they had to approach the issue sotto voce. In a 1999 New Yorker profile of Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health, James Fallows called stem cells a “potentially explosive” issue that would test Varmus’ “skill and commitment” and “finesse.” But in August 2001, Bush ended the debate over whether the federal government would fund stem-cell research. It would. The argument then shifted immediately to the question of why, if Bush was willing to fund stem-cell research, he would give the nod to so ridiculously few stem-cell lines. Even if stem-cell research desecrated human life, the damage had been done. Why be stingy when so many human lives might be saved? According to the Kerry campaign’s polling, fully 69 percent of voters currently support stem-cell research, and a majority say they support it “strongly.” It is no longer necessary—or even advisable—for Democrats to whisper their support for stem-cell research.

As a “wedge” issue, Democrats covet stem-cell research because it lures industry—in this case, the biotech industry—away from the GOP. (Might it help explain why the pharmaceutical industry’s political contributions to Democrats jumped from 26 percent to 34 percent of their total giving between 2002 and 2004?) Moreover, Republicans are as much in favor of advancing medical science as Democrats are; we all have friends and family members suffering from Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, cancer, or any of the various other diseases for which stem cells may one day provide a cure. In addition, stem-cell research has evolved into a political synecdoche for “concern about Bush’s handling of science in general,” according to Varmus, now president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and chairman of a group called Scientists and Engineers for Kerry. Chris Mooney, a journalist who has covered stem cells more thoroughly than just about any other, notes further: “[T]hat anger is increasingly bipartisan.”

It’s been rumored that the Republicans may invite Ron Reagan’s more conservative half-brother, Michael, who opposes stem-cell research, to counter with a speech of his own at the Republican National Convention in New York. I’ll bet John Kerry would love to be thrown into that briar patch. But it’s hard to believe the GOP would be stupid enough to do it. If you search the entire Bush-Cheney campaign Web site, you’ll find only four instances where the phrase “stem cell” comes up. It’s a subject Bush wants to avoid at least as much as Kerry wants to emphasize it. That’s why Democrats will keep saying “stem cell, stem cell, stem cell” over and over until Election Day.