Friday, February 17, 2006

Republicans Divided Over Stem Cells

In the long run up to the next presidential election, the vanguard signifying the long-awaited removal of the most inept administration in memory, the Republican Party is finding itself deeply divided over one hot-button issue. And, although it’s still early, that does not bode well for a repeat of the 2004 election results.

The issue is stem cell research. But, unlike a few years ago when Pres. Bush unilaterally placed a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Republicans are not united on the issue.

Last year the Republican-led House of Representatives handily passed a measure that would permit funding for therapeutic cloning research. But due to the hurricane disasters, the Senate got sidetracked on its version of the bill.

But the issue will likely arise in the Senate this year, where it has the support of Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, who once opposed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Surveys continually indicate that the vast majority of Americans support embryonic stem cell research. The research holds promise of eventually leading to cures for grave illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

As a result of the presidential order restricting funding, the government has taken itself out of the equation, allowing the research to be done by private individuals or sending scientists in the field to other countries that have not banned the research.

A prohibition on government funding makes it more likely that over-zealous researchers working on their own will fudge results of their research, such as what happened late last year in South Korea. Such bogus results can set bona fide research back anywhere from six months to five years.

But Bush’s restriction on funding has a silver lining if you’re a Democrat. Most Democrats favor funding for stem cell research. But Republicans are split. So it becomes a wedge issue that divides the party. And that’s good news for those seeking to reverse the trend that started in 2000 when Bush was first elected.

Personally, I don’t care which party wins an election because I belong to neither. I am far more concerned with the issues than the organization.

I would be more than happy to support a Republican for office as long as he is in favor of scientific initiatives such as embryonic stem cell research, and as long as he leaves whatever personal moral convictions he might have out of public policy-making decisions that would affect the public at large, many of whom may not share his convictions.

Republicans like that exist, but they are a rare breed. There would be more of them, except that they are loathe to alienate their more conservative constituents.

But the more pragmatic Republicans may be starting to come around. Frist has done so already, and he brought others with him.

Two elections coming up this November may be test cases for stem cell research. In Missouri, supporters are gathering signatures to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that would protect certain types of stem-cell research.

And in Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is running for the open seat of retiring Democrat Paul Sarbanes, changed sides and now conditionally backs stem cell research.

Stem cell research is opposed by conservative Republicans who equate it to abortion because the embryo that supplies the stem cell is destroyed. But many anti-abortion Republicans support stem cell research because of its potential to lead to life-saving therapies.

It doesn’t hurt that most voters support stem cell research. Republicans who might otherwise vote their conscience may see the writing on the wall, and vote to keep their position instead.

In either case, the good news is that Bush’s days in the White House are numbered, and so are the days of his ill-conceived, self-righteous ban on federal funding for stem cell research.

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