It's been just about one year since Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist decided to do an about-face and support embryonic stem-cell research, breaking with President Bush. Some said it was about political expediency he had so angered moderates by his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case that he was culling their favor by calling for embryonic research. But after spending a couple of hours with the senator on this, I've come to a different conclusion: As a doctor, he believed that the science had changed dramatically and that the stem-cell lines the president authorized for use have not delivered what they promised, and so change is in order.
Sure, the decision has huge political overtones: The stem-cell vote today will hand the president a bill he would rather not have right now, because it will likely become his first veto. But Frist has managed, in this debate and in the votes today on three different stem-cell proposals, to give everyone something to vote for. Everyone will support a bill to outlaw fetal farming. Sens. Specter and Santorum (facing an uphill re-election battle in Pennsylvania) are proposing another measure to give money to investigate a way to extricate stem cells from embryos without killing them. Senators will vote for that, too. And the most controversial measureallowing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research nowwill be supported by Frist and a host of other antiabortion conservatives, who will break with the president.
The stem-cell debate unites Democrats and divides Republicans, much like immigration reform. No doubt the Dems will take advantage of this with moderate voters in the fall elections. But what's really interesting to watch is how this stacks up for the GOP in 2008Sen. John McCain and Frist on one side; Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas on the other, calling embryonic stem-cell research immoral. The question, of course, is this: Is it really immoral to destroy embryos (which would be discarded anyway) to save human lives? More and more conservatives think that's not the case.
The president reached his stem-cell decision in 2001. Science has changed, and so should he. That's what the public expects in national policy.