Politics begins at conception

Kathleen Parker
Posted: Oct 08, 2004 12:00 AM

One of the oddest pieces of the season's presidential race has been the issue of stem-cell research, often presented as a conflict between ignorant religious nuts and brilliant science martyrs.

You need no help determining which side is which.

As the spin cycle turns, President George W. Bush is pandering to religious extremists by restricting the federal funding of stem-cell research that destroys human embryos, while Sen. John F. Kerry is leading the light brigade toward knowledge, progress and human salvation.

If elected president, Kerry promises he won't let "ideology and fear stand in the way!"

In his acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Kerry went through a series of "What if" scenarios that resulted in the sort of scientific breakthroughs even a troglodyte would applaud. Then he asked:

"What if we find a breakthrough to Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's and AIDS? 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?"

The question implies, obviously, that we don't have a president who believes in science, but rather one who like millions of other Americans allows religion to inform his morality. Bush's reluctance to spend taxpayer money for research that destroys nascent human life apparently is viewed by the Kerry camp as a Paleolithic perspective rather than a sincere concern about how we treat human life.

In a speech last year, Kerry said: "Nothing illustrates this administration's anti-science attitude better than George Bush's cynical decision to limit research on embryonic stem cells." Well, except for those animal skins Bush keeps in his closet, right next to the vat of preserved goat marrow.

There are lots of ways to be religious, of course, and not all are defined by a spiritual deity. Indeed, in the absence of that ol'-time religion, people often will invent their own. Some people build religious beliefs and rituals around food, for instance, worshiping vegetarianism or, say, wine drinking. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Kerry, who studiously avoids allowing his Catholicism to influence his beliefs, suddenly has found religion in stem cells. He repeatedly has asserted his deep belief in the promise of embryonic stem-cell research, in contrast to Bush, whose Christianity Kerry suggests is an obstacle to progress. Seemingly lost in the debate is any recognition that millions of Americans are as deeply concerned as Bush is about the value and disposal of potential human life at any stage.

The politicization of stem cells was completed with the summer resurrection of Ron Reagan Jr.'s flagging celebrity career when he spoke at the Democratic convention in remembrance of his father, former President Ronald Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, potentially curable with stem cells.

Reagan, who without irony has scolded Republicans for hijacking his father's good name for political gain, urged a vote for stem-cell research in November. Which would be a vote not only for Kerry, but for hope, life and an end to suffering. A vote for Bush, one easily infers, would condemn the sick to greater tortures and humankind to a dark age of flat-Earth superstition.

One can find lots of reasons to vote for Kerry over Bush, but the latter's stance on stem-cell research is something far short of religious extremism. In fact, one could argue the reverse - that Bush is seeking high middle ground in a charged ethical debate, while Kerry is becoming a borderline zealot.

Bush has not banned stem-cell research, as the political story has been widely misunderstood. To the dismay of some, he has continued funding research on 60 existing stem cell lines from previously destroyed embryos that were created by private research. Because these cell lines can replicate themselves indefinitely, they permit extensive research without crossing the moral line of destroying potential human life.

Bush's 2005 budget, meanwhile, calls for $132 billion in research and development, including research on other sources of stem cells (umbilical cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells) that also can be used - and are being used successfully - to treat a variety of ailments. Hardly pocket change for someone allegedly anti-science.

While reasonable people can disagree about the ethics and future directions of stem-cell research, Bush essentially has taken a market approach to the research while respecting the convictions of millions - not just the theological few - for whom the destruction of human embryos is problematic if not unconscionable.

Politically, that seems a reasonable compromise. As for religious zealots, there are worse than those who obsess about the value of human life.