The hinge of history

Posted: Feb 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's stand against embryonic stem cell research not only changes the long-range picture for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. It augments a shift in tactics by social conservatives. They are trying to change the focus from research for fighting disease to an uncontrolled scientific community's quest to clone human beings.

 Romney's position previously had been considered mildly pro-stem cell. His wife, Ann, suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease for which cloning is supposed to promise miraculous cures. But early in February, the governor flatly came out against Harvard University's plans to create human embryos, purportedly for research. He said last Monday that he and his wife "agree that you don't create new life to help cure our issues."

 That statement was made by the Massachusetts governor in Spartanburg, S.C., where he was testing early presidential waters. Romney is moving rightward on social policy, declaring himself "pro-life." But to depict what he is saying in strictly political terms is to trivialize an issue of overriding ethical importance. "We stand at the hinge of history," an anti-cloning activist who is a former official at the United Nations, told me.

 The historic decision is not, as cloning proponents claim, whether to spend public funds on research to combat a wide variety of illnesses. The broader decision whether to grant science unlimited power is symbolized by the bill pending in Massachusetts to legalize the creation of human embryos. Romney has declared he will veto the bill, bringing upon himself the full wrath of the liberal establishment from Harvard to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

 The outrage provoked by Romney was intense. Dr. Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology, said of the governor's opposition: "It is mind-boggling. He is completely out of step with the scientific and medical community." But Romney is not out of step with the ordinary people of Massachusetts, who polls indicate unalterably oppose cloning.

 The scientists so far have gotten around this obstacle by never mentioning the c-word -- cloning. That was how a stem-cell bill was pushed through the New Jersey Legislature by then Gov. Jim McGreevey. That was how California's voters were talked into supporting Proposition 71 (backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), which provides $3 billion in state funds for producing human embryos but does not contain the word cloning. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has announced plans to release some of that $3 billion for "therapeutic" cloning.

 Like the bills in Massachusetts and other state legislatures, the California proposition bars "reproductive cloning." But all these proposals permit creation of human embryos for research purposes, which certainly can be described as cloning. Robert Klein II, the rich California housing developer who conceived and raised money for Prop 71, is going national by funding opposition to anti-cloning bills in Congress.

 There are signs of an anti-cloning counterattack. On Feb. 18, the UN General Assembly voted, despite bitter opposition, to call on governments to prohibit all forms of human cloning. On Feb. 22, a conservative public interest group filed a lawsuit attempting to throw out Proposition 71.

 At the point of the counterattack is Mitt Romney. He undercuts the intractable scientific community, arguing that research for diseases such as the one that afflicts his wife can be accomplished without cloning. The intensity of the feeling against him is typified by Massachusetts Democratic Chairman Philip Johnston, a former liberal state representative and federal health official, describing the governor's comments as "vile."

 Romney met on Feb. 18 with Dr. William Hurlbut, a physician and Stanford biology professor who is working on a way to produce stem cells without a human embryo. I have previously reported how Hurlbut, a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, opens the theoretical possibility of solving this bitter political and social struggle.

 But science, represented by the Harvard dons, has no intention of accepting such a solution. They, too, feel located at the hinge of history to determine whether science will be freed of traditional ethical considerations. It is an overpowering issue that dwarfs Social Security reform and even democratizing Iraq, in determining how George W. Bush can guide this country's course.