Religious right takes on stem cell research
Writing in support of the Senate bill to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist opened his op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post with three words: "I am pro-life."
Coming from Frist, a staunchly antiabortion Republican, the declaration sounded more than a little defensive. And as yesterday's vote approached on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, Frist wasn't the only Republican supporter to feel heat from the antiabortion community. "Pro-life leaders have been respectful but disappointed," says Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, an antiabortion Republican who cosponsored the bill. "One leader even told me I was no longer pro-life."
"But with rank-and-file people," Hatch continues, "countless have come up to me and said, 'I support you ... your position is very pro-life because you want to help the living as well as the unborn."
But as the Senate bill, which passed, 63-37, yesterday, heads to the White House for an expected veto (the bill fell short of its two-thirds majority necessary to override the president) the experiences of Frist and Hatch illustrate the dilemma Republicans will continue to face on embryonic stem cell research this election year: A majority of Americans support the research, but those who oppose it are religious conservatives evangelicals and traditional Catholicswho constitute the GOP's base.
"Stem cell research has been merged with the antiabortion argument in the minds of many activists," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. "It's become a surrogate for doing something about abortion."
A poll conducted last summer by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that public support for stem cell research had grown to 57 percent, up from 42 percent in 2002. But virtually all the increase in support came from Democrats, independents, and moderate to liberal Republicans. Only a third of evangelicals and conservatives surveyed said that conducting stem cell research was more important than avoiding the destruction of human embryos.
Given those numbers, the opposition of the White House and many Republicans to today's Senate bill "has the appearance of catering to the extreme right," says a top Democratic strategist. While the Senate today passed The two other bills on stem cell researchone to increase support for adult stem cell research and another to outlaw "fetal farming'were seen by Democrats and by some independent political watchers as attempts to give the White House and other Republicans cover against charges of being "anti-science." On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's office sent a memo to Democratic colleagues that included polling on support for embryonic stem cell research from 10 different states, including red states like Texas and Oklahoma.
Heading into the midterms, the question now is how strongly voters feel about stem cell research, particularly outside states like Missouri, where a state ballot initiative on the issue has given it a higher profile. "Frankly, [voters] want to chew on my ear about $3-a-gallon gasoline," said Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate challenging Missouri Sen. Jim Talent this year, in a conference call with reporters yesterday, "and [about] why their pensions are getting kicked to the curb."
But Christian right activists are watching closely to see if stem cell research gives the Democrats a winning wedge issue in 2006. "If the other side does successfully use this in campaigns this year," says a top conservative Christian activist, who requested anonymity, "then 2008 might be a very different year. We may be in a much smaller minority."