Stem-cell Issue Viewed as Pitfall for Republicans

By E.J. Kessler

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — Democrats are seeking to make embryonic stem-cell research a key issue in the 2006 midterm elections, in a move that is underscoring the party’s closeness with the Jewish community on so-called values questions.

This week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a strategy memo arguing that “stem-cell research could define ’06 races.” The memo noted that the GOP Senate candidates in Maryland and Missouri had taken positions on stem-cell research that “put them at odds with the electorates in their states” and that “2006 could bring [President] George Bush’s first veto if a stem-cell funding bill — which is supported by several leading Republicans — passes Congress.”

The issue exploded into public view last week when the Republican candidate for Senate in Maryland, Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, answered questions at a February 9 luncheon of the Baltimore Jewish Council. Steele caused a furor with remarks in which he seemingly compared research on embryonic stem cells to experiments conducted by Nazi doctors.

Coincidentally, the next day, Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, who is locked in a tough race with a Democratic opponent who supports stem-cell research, withdrew his support from a bill — sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican — that would have banned and criminalized all human cloning, including cloning for embryonic stem-cell research. The research is favored by one of Talent’s prominent Jewish supporters.

Democrats think Republicans are especially vulnerable because of their equivocations on the issue.

“You’re seeing Republicans trying to play it both ways,” said a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Phil

Singer. “They’re both against it and for it, without taking a position either way. Any time politicians appear to be talking out of both sides of their mouth, it hurts them at the polls. If they’re not for it, they should say they’re not for it. When they talk out of both sides of their mouth, they look like politicians. That’s what’s going on in Missouri and in Maryland.”

Like most Democrats, almost all mainstream Jewish organizations strongly support stem-cell research, which promises cures for many deadly degenerative diseases. All Jewish religious streams, including the Orthodox, hold that the cells have no special status outside the womb and so they can and should be used for such research. Israeli research arms, including Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center and Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, have emerged as world leaders in stem-cell research; Hadassah, the largest American Jewish organization, advocates for the research on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country.

Catholic authorities and many conservative Christian denominations, however, believe that fertilized human embryos constitute human beings and that using them for research is immoral and tantamount to killing. Responding to such concerns, in 2001 Bush banned federal dollars for any such research, with the exception of the 15 stem-cell lines derived before the ban went into effect. Bush is threatening to veto a bill introduced by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — the senior Republican Jewish lawmaker in Congress — that would lift the ban and expand funding for the research.

A conservative Catholic and former seminarian, Steele, who opposes abortion, apparently was unaware of Jewish support for the research when he made his remarks.

“You, of all folks, know what happens when people decide to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool,” Steele was quoted as saying in press reports. “I know that, as well, in my community, out of our experience with slavery, and so I’m very cautious when people say,‘This is the best new thing. This is going to save lives.’”

Steele apologized to the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council in a February 10 letter. On February 11, Steele apologized publicly for his remarks, saying that he supports embryonic stem-cell research but wants a “bioethic component” to be included.

“My words did not even include the Holocaust,” Steele said on a Baltimore radio station, WBAL. “What happened was it was just an unfortunate reference, rather, inference from what I had said that I was trying to link the two. I was in no way doing that, so I do apologize for offending many Marylanders, Jewish and non-Jewish, with that remark.”

“I don’t think scientists who engage in this research are Nazis or criminals and anyone who will try to raise that specter with me or my words is ignorant and wrong, and I’m hoping the public will see through that,” Steele said. “I hope people do not look to politicize this issue.”

The frontrunner for the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland, Rep. Ben Cardin of Baltimore (who is Jewish), was not letting Steele off so easily. At a February 10 press conference, Cardin attacked Steele for comparing the research to “the barbarity of the Holocaust.”

“When you let politicians dictate what science can do, it’s wrong,” Cardin told the Forward in a telephone interview. He called Steele’s views “extreme” and “out of step with the country.” Cardin described Steele’s remarks as “offensive to all Americans, especially to those who do research and those who suffer from degenerative diseases.”

Polls show that about 60% of Marylanders support stem-cell research, according to The Baltimore Sun.

In Missouri, meanwhile, Talent faced a significant backlash from Christian conservative groups over his withdrawal of support for the Brownback bill, which the groups support as part of their “culture of life” agenda. One such group, the Family Research Council, sent an e-mail urging supporters to register their dismay with Talent’s office, while anti-abortion activists castigated Talent for his “flip-flop,” according to National Journal’s political tip sheet, The Hotline.

According to news reports, Talent said he was withdrawing his support from the Brownback initiative in order to advance an alternative form of research called altered nuclear transfer, which he said made the Brownback bill unnecessary. A controversial and unproven method, altered nuclear transfer seeks to provide the benefits of stem-cell research without destroying embryos.

Some prominent Missouri Republicans, however, including Sam Fox — a top Talent supporter who is also the national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition — are supporting an amendment to Missouri’s constitution that would allow for stem-cell research not otherwise banned by federal law. Fox, a major supporter of Washington University in Saint Louis, which he said gets millions of dollars in research grants from the National Institutes of Health, supports the amendment and stem-cell research.

“The main reason I’m supporting [the amendment] is that 100 million people in America are suffering from some kind of disease that could be helped or cured by stem-cell research,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “That is huge. There’s a tremendous amount of good that can come out of stem-cell research.”

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