WASHINGTON -- As the biotech lobby mobilizes in Washington this week to fight anti-human cloning legislation, a new national poll shows the industry's Senate Democratic allies on a course fraught with political danger. The survey of 800 adults by The Polling Co. shows 63 percent totally agree with President Bush's strong anti-cloning statement and only 29 percent disagree.
Yet, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has held up action on the bill passed long ago by the House, with no certainty he ever will permit an up-or-down vote. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana remains the only Democratic co-sponsor of the anti-cloning measure introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Democratic senators facing tough challenges for re-election this year stubbornly resist supporting a bill popular in their home states. Headcounts of committed senators show a 43 to 43 deadlock.
Why? Brownback's explanation is that Democrats are relating to two important and generous constituencies: Hollywood and academia. That is part of the truth, but party-line Democratic opposition to the Brownback-Landrieu bill also testifies to a reverence for science above even political survival. When practical politicians defy popular opinion, they are usually in thrall to powerful ideology.
Disabled and ailing actors Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, highlighted opposing anti-cloning legislation on grounds it would undermine research to help them, obscure the ideological underpinning. In the introduction to their collection of issues on the new genetics ("The Future is Now"), William Kristol and Eric Cohen describe the issue as "the 'liberation' of the post-modern self from all moral, natural and perhaps, one day, biological limits."
No such overpowering ideological thrust was apparent last July when the House voted 265 to 162 to bar human cloning after cursory debate. Daschle committed himself to a Senate vote early in 2002, but instead the bill became lodged in the Democratic Senate's deep pit of stalled legislation passed by the Republican House. The majority leader has become an active opponent, firming up partisan opposition.
The issue appeared comatose until April 10 when Bush, who has gradually returned to actively pursuing legislation not related to terrorism, presided over an East Room ceremony at the White House promoting the anti-cloning bill. That triggered the poll, commissioned by the Stop Human Cloning organization and conducted April 13-15, asking for reaction to the president's statement of opposition to "research cloning which involves the creation of cloned embryos for the purpose of destroying them to retrieve stem cells."
Behind the 63 percent approval of Bush's position is a potential reverse gender gap for Democrats, with 68 percent of women agreeing with the president compared to 53 percent of men. African-Americans were especially strong against cloning (65 percent). A statement modeled after Daschle's position, to permit cloning for medical research, received only 26 percent agreement overall.
It will require pressure to keep Democratic senators resisting that tide, and the effort steps up this week with a combination lobbying sweep and trade fair. The biotech industry's representatives will be buttonholing senators Tuesday and Wednesday, closely followed by an investor conference Wednesday through Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The basic pro-cloning argument -- as expressed by the leading Republican defector, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- is not "to tie the hands of medical science in the 21st Century." But Brownback cites a renowned researcher, Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has methods other than cloning for stem-cell research. Brownback also lists recent successes in use of adult stem cells against multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, liver disease, heart damage and stroke.
Support for the Brownback-Landrieu bill announced by Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee the day before the White House event was welcome relief for anti-cloning forces. The decision by the Senate's only physician, former heart surgeon Frist, was anxiously awaited by both sides.
The remaining uncommitted Democratic senators may hope Daschle keeps the issue from coming to a vote. Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jean Carnahan of Missouri face vigorous election challenges in states where Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant sentiment buttresses popular opposition to cloning. The surprise is that they even entertain being on the wrong side of this issue.