Rightist’s Blast On Stem Cells Stirs Outrage

By E.B. Solomont

Published August 12, 2005, issue of August 12, 2005.
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After a leading religious conservative leader compared stem-cell research to Nazi medical experiments, several groups that condemned the analogy have reported a flood of messages from angry protesters, some of them threatening violence.

During his syndicated radio show August 3, James Dobson, one of the country’s most influential religious conservatives and chairman of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family, criticized embryonic stem-cell research, saying its lack of ethics and morality was reminiscent of Nazi experiments on death-camp inmates. A message was later posted on the Focus on the Family Web site urging followers to e-mail complaints to two organizations that criticized Dobson’s remarks, the Anti-Defamation League and the Denver-based think tank ProgressNow.org. The Web site also named Rep. Diana DeGette, the Colorado Democrat who co-authored stem-cell research legislation.

Officials at the ADL and ProgressNow.org told the Forward that their respective organizations had been inundated with critical e-mails. Michael Huttner, executive director of ProgressNow.org, said that he passed on to the Denver branch of the FBI several of the 2,000 negative messages his organization received. He claimed the messages were threatening.

Gary Schneeberger, editor of the e-mail news service of the Focus on the Family’s Web site, told the Forward that the organization had urged followers to be “respectful” in their complaints. He said threatening e-mails were “reprehensible” and apologized for any such messages that were sent.

The initial flap over Dobson’s remarks echoed several recent controversies about the appropriateness of employing Holocaust analogies. Several Republicans who have criticized Democrats for employing Holocaust analogies did not return calls seeking comment on Dobson’s remarks. Among those not returning calls were Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, House Majority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican Jewish Coalition and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

Some stem-cell advocates said that the use of Holocaust analogies is particularly alarming in this case, given that similar language was used by elements of the pro-life movement before several abortion doctors were murdered. Some religious conservative activists argue that aborting a fetus or destroying a fertilized embryo outside the womb is akin to the taking of a human life.

Radical anti-abortion activists historically have invoked the Holocaust and trafficked in antisemitism, according to an ADL investigation conducted in the late 1990s. During that decade, four out of five abortion doctors killed in the United States and Canada were Jewish, including Barnett Slepian, who was shot in his Amherst, N.Y., home in October 1998 after returning from Friday night Sabbath services

“Dobson is doing the same thing that the anti-abortion fanatics have done for 30 years to inflame violence against abortion doctors and against women,” said Dr. Warren Hern, director of the Boulder, Colo.’s Boulder Abortion Clinic.

Huttner expressed concern that “the people that are sending me violent e-mails may, in fact, be some of the people who are very extreme when it comes to the pro-life issue.”

The FBI could not be reached for comment. Focus on the Family did not return calls seeking comment.

Another pro-stem cell organization that criticized Dobson, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also reported increased negative feedback from the public after being criticized on several conservative blogs.

Jewish groups and proponents of stem-cell legislation immediately condemned Dobson’s comments, which also targeted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, weeks after the Tennessee Republican issued a surprise endorsement of legislation to expand federal support for embryonic stem-cell research.

“We are concerned because it trivializes history,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL sent Dobson a letter, calling on him to apologize, but during a subsequent radio broadcast August 5, the religious conservative leader said he would not. Dobson repeated his position Monday during an appearance on the Fox News program “Hannity & Colmes.”

In an interview with the Forward, Foxman said that Dobson’s comparison of stem-cell research to Nazi science is a “mimickery” of extreme anti-abortion language. “When it’s used in one issue, chances are it will find it’s way to another,” he said.

Melinda DuBois, clinic director of Buffalo Womenservices, the abortion clinic in upstate New York where Slepian worked, warned that inflammatory language often leads to actual violence. “I wouldn’t see that being so far-fetched,” DuBois said of the recent criticisms of proponents of stem-cell research. “I have always felt very strongly that when you use words like that, you are inciting other people.”

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