John Leo

Just when you think the debate over embryonic stem cells can't get any more degraded, an outfit called the Campaign to Defend the Constitution comes along and proves you wrong. The group took out two vitriolic full-page ads in The New York Times (at $200,000 a pop) lashing out at religious conservatives as extremists and ideologues for opposing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR).

This was too much for my friend and former colleague Peter Steinfels, who, although religious and morally nuanced, is allowed to write a weekly "Beliefs" column for The New York Times. He wondered whether the labels "extremist" and "ideologue" were supposed to cover all religious people who have moral qualms about killing embryos. He wrote: What about the Catholic bishops, who opposed the Iraq war, or "the respected bioethicists who advised the president on his position five years ago"? Are they all unprincipled people imposing their will on the American public?

Steinfels went to the trouble of interviewing one Jessica Smith, the director of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, who "seemed uncertain" about whether religious folk who disagree with her are all extremists. She must be new at the propaganda game because she foolishly told Steinfels that whether people like the Catholic bishops are extremists "depends on the topic." Presumably this means that the bishops keep shuffling between extremism and non-extremism, the latter occurring when they agree with Smith. The latter would happen on the death penalty and soft treatment of illegal immigrants.

Smith does not appear to own a very subtle mind, but then you don't really need one if your game is hardball partisan politics. The Campaign to Defend the Constitution bills itself as an online grassroots group of 90,000 people. It would be more accurate to call it a well-heeled creation of the Tides Foundation and its stepchild, the Tides Center, both of which concentrate on funding left causes, sometimes extreme left causes.

Stem-cell funding is a great issue for Democrats and the left this year because it's a rare instance of substantial numbers of traditionalists willing to oppose a traditional value, in this case, that human life, even infinitesimal forms of human life, must not be destroyed for research purposes. The traditional value at stake holds that slippery-slope concerns are valid -- once softened up by the distant prospect of great cures, the public may be willing to move from tiny embryos to larger ones, and then perhaps to the destruction of small children with defects, which Princeton ethicist Peter Singer already favors.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.