Monday, August 01, 2005

Coleman's Stem Cell Division

There is an old saw about compromise that if nobody is happy with it, then it is probably a good compromise. Perhaps. However, that presumes you do not lose something too dear in the process. In the case of funding embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Norm Coleman's proposal to push forward President Bush's moratorium date from August 2001 has something to displease everyone. It also eats away core Republican principles and represents a lost opportunity for the senator to show genuine leadership on a highly charged issue.

The senator asserts that President Bush's stand is not only not pro-science, but is in danger of entrenching the party as anti-science and offering no real hope for patients and their families struggling with debilitating and chronic conditions. Some of the transactionalists of the center-right (the good outweighs the evil types) may not assert this, but the flagellating left would have us believe that to be sure. This is pure rationalization and nonsensical.

While he was running for the Senate in 2002, Mr. Coleman's pro-life stance also included favoring a ban on embryonic stem cell research. Recall during the nationally televised debate between Messrs. Coleman and Mondale when the former Vice President chided his abortion stance as resting on an arbitrary line for when life should be protected, and the now-senator replied with an eloquent and sincere response of his young family's having experienced tragedy and how he has come to know that there is nothing arbitrary about young life. That makes it even more disappointing that this stem cell proposal is nothing if not arbitrary.

For this discussion, let's set aside the ethical questions of whether we ought to abort nascent human life in general and what are the legitimate constraints that society can place on the practice of normal science just because there are certain things we can do, i.e., what ought to be banned. I think that the underlying antagonism with today's debate is really more about the future of abortion and less about science qua science. The current positions on ESCR among "pro-life" senators, including Norm Coleman, Bill Frist, and Orrin "Life doesn't begin in a Petri dish" Hatch, then become all the more distressing. (Note to Sen. Hatch: Life ought not to begin in a dish, but it occurs wherever the conditions exist that God prescribed and can include a Petri dish.)

An idea I have cited before is how Chesterton once noted that an attitude that ought to be opposed is the view that because we have got into a mess we must grow messier to suit it; that because we have taken a wrong turn some time ago we must go forward and not backwards; that because we have lost our way we must lose our map also; and because we have missed our ideal, we must forget it. From a pro-life perspective, the question of ESCR represents an opportunity to address this sense without having to take on directly the particulars of abortion in common practice. However, I recognize that many will still insist on jumping to the inevitable end game, particularly on the left. They recognize what many purported pro-life senators apparently do not: The life question cannot forever be divided to promote ESCR and ban abortion on demand, or ban ESCR and allow abortion, because they both address the same principle.

According to Merriam-Webster, a person is a human individual. The human zygotes whose fate is at question under a regime of ESCR are undeniably human and undeniably individuals. Therefore, the pro-life tenet that they are persons is reasonable using common language. The question, of course, is whether they ought to be protected in law. Herein lies the opportunity because, as persons, the question of their protection properly lies in the police powers of the states. Unlike aborted fetuses, there is no delineated, overriding federal right to privacy of the mother that trumps their natural law right to life.

Also consider that for contentious matters among the states, the federalist structure provided by the Framers provides a mechanism to maintain a d├ętente until there's a tipping point that drives consensus while keeping that choice in the hands of the people through the legislatures and the Congress. Both these points outline the federalist argument that an authentic conservative ought to be making. Like most things in accordance with truth, restricting federal funding of ESCR is supportable with a secular argument. It also needs no twisting of common definitions while deferring the morals discussion likely to be distorted by that "imposition of a theocracy" nonsense to the state level where some of its steam can be let.

Enter "US is falling behind in the development of cures" cries here. They ought to fall on deaf ears. Several states, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Indiana have already taken steps to either fund, or allow explicitly, ESCR. There are probably at least a half-dozen separate states in the Union with the economic and/or medical technology firepower to hold their own independently with every other country in the field of stem cell research, precluding the need for federal action. And then note that when there is a stark choice (and yes, politically, setting the priority has now been reduced to an either/or choice) between a path with clinical results demonstrating dozens of treatments, as with adult stem cell research, and the over-hyped claims of ESCR, which has zero cures or treatments to its credit, being muddied fiscal responsibility is being rejected out of hand for emotional appeal.

If we decide that it is government's proper role to fund science, which ought not be assumed automatically, the responsible position must be to help promulgate demonstrated cures and treatments rather than put the emphasis on a hope of potential cures that, according to the pro-ESCR medical journal, The Lancet, are at least a decade away. At what point do we recognize that the very flexibility that is so celebrated for pluripotent cells also makes them inherently unstable? It is not an accident that treatments derived from ASCs are more abundant. The Republican party has lost its sense of judicious restraint and replaced it with a "kid in the candy store" mentality. Let us not forget that to the working family every little bit helps--every extra bit we do not tax and spend helps interest rate stability, helps take home pay, dumps a little less on our children. And that brings us to the final point. Even from a purely pragmatic view, if we are going to spend the family's money, we ought to be spending those marginal dollars on something that will produce results. And that is ASCR. This is what the senator should be championing.

Sen. Coleman has been a lion on foreign policy. So given his personal and political pro-life record and his ability for clarity, I expected a stem cell policy position derived from and consistent with Republican core principless. The senator has had an opportunity to articulate a reasoned position that is pro-science, pro-growth, pro-family, pro-federalism, pro-patient, and pro-life. That would have brought him to the fore on domestic policy as well. Instead he offers us an arbitrary line for determining valuable life and undermines the party's core principles. The wolf in sheep's clothing that is his proposal leaves it open for continuous renewal and in this way is less honest and more dangerous than even Sen. Frist's recent betrayal. I am praying the senator returns to common sense.

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