Wednesday, December 12, 2007

With Recent Advances, Democrats Have Dropped the Issue of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In Yet Another Stem-Cell Miracle, Dems Have Dropped The Subject
Posted 12/11/2007

John Edwards had a lot he wanted to say at the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting on Nov. 30.
In a fiery speech, he ran down a litany of issues such as Iraq, health care and workers' rights, going well over his allotted 10 minutes and stepping on the other presidential candidates' time.

But as lengthy as his remarks were, there was one issue he never mentioned: stem cells.
He wasn't alone. Barack Obama didn't address the topic in his speech, either. Nor did any of the other candidates present. Stem cells also slipped the minds of DNC chairman Howard Dean and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What's more, nobody seemed to notice.

"Yeah, it didn't come up," shrugged Robert Asaro-Angelo, executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. The fact had not even occurred to him until someone else pointed it out.
The issue also went unmentioned during the NPR-hosted Democratic presidential debate on Dec. 4. Instead Iran, Iraq and immigration dominated the debate's two hours.

A few weeks ago this would have been unthinkable. For years, Democrats have pushed the stem cell issue hard, making overturning the White House's restrictions on federal funding a key part of their platform. Yet almost overnight the issue seems forgotten.

The reason is the publication last month of two scientific papers indicating that skin cells can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic cells, potentially eliminating the need for embryonic cells in the first place.

The results were splashed across major papers.
In one fell swoop the politics of the issue shifted, says Ramesh Ponnuru, a harsh critique of the Democrats' stem cell policy and author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life."

"I am not surprised to see that politicians running for office on the Democratic side are talking about this issue less because there is not as much profit to it anymore," Ponnuru said.

Democrats had downplayed the possibility that adult stem cells could be used as an alternative. They argued instead that embryonic cells represented the cutting edge of science.

"Now that same argument can be turned against them," Ponnuru said. "If they want to go based on clinical results, adult stem cells are better. If they want to go based on which has more promise, these (new) alternatives are better."

The new technique already is showing great promise. Last week, the journal Science reported that scientists had used reprogrammed skin cells to cure mice with sickle cell anemia.
Embryonic stem cell research first became an issue in 2001, when President Bush limited federal funding for it.

Bush argued that moral concerns over using the embryos, which are potential human life, prompted him to restrict the funding to existing stem cell lines. In those cases, he said, the life and death decisions already had been made. No new lines would be funded.
There was no limit put on private funding of research. The administration funded adult stem cell research, too.

Still, most scientists involved in the field cried foul, arguing that without federal funding progress would grind to a halt.

Democrats eagerly seized on it as an issue. They argued that Bush was holding back science and preventing the creation of major — even miraculous — new therapies. Their rhetoric rarely held back.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last year that President Bush's veto of a bill to lift the funding cap "crushed the hopes of millions who suffer from serious and debilitating diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's."

During the 2004 presidential election, John Edwards went so far as to say that embryonic stem cell research would let "Christopher Reeve . . . get up out of that wheelchair and walk again."

The Democrats even recruited Ron Reagan Jr., to talk about it at their 2004 convention, implying that President Reagan would have wanted embryonic stem cell research to go forward.

That push helped to turn it into a major issue for rank-and-file Democratic voters. A late October study by the Pew Research Center found that 43% of Democrats rated stem cell research as "very important." Only 33% of independents and 25% of Republicans rated it that way.

Even then the issue was fading for Democrats. In 2004, 52% had cited it as very important.
Democrats such as Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island say that the recent innovations haven't eliminated the need for embryonic research because it still offers the most promise.

The issue doesn't come up in debates these days, Langevin says, only "because it's not an issue the candidates are divided on . . . I think every one of us is pretty much in lockstep."

Nevertheless, Langevin concedes that the new avenues of research are "certainly exciting" and that won't make the case for overturning the cap any easier.

"The president has twice now vetoed legislation to remove the restrictions he put in place." Langevin said. "It's unclear whether the Democratic leadership will bring it up again because we don't have the votes to override."
Democrats had been counting on more Republicans to flip and vote with them. That prospect now looks dim.
In other words, Ron Reagan likely will stay home next year and watch the Democratic convention on TV.
Higgins is a correspondent in IBD's Washington bureau.

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