The Democrats' sweeping takeover of Congress and its "New Direction For America" put them in a position to give Americans the change in political leadership they are waiting for.
Much of the Democrats' plan walks the traditional party line: raising the minimum wage, lowering prescription drug costs and preventing Social Security privatization. But the midterm results also have given them confidence to put what many perceive to be a polarizing wedge issue back on the table -- embryonic stem cell research.
New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reintroduced the already-vetoed Castle-DeGette Bill, which would lift the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for this research, and it passed the House last week. This could mark a significant turning point in stem cell politics.
If the bill passes the Senate and survives another possible veto, Democrats may be in a position to take a series of important steps to curb the political rhetoric, educate the public on this remarkably complex issue, and move beyond discussions on whether embryonic stem cell research should take place and focus instead on how Congress can best promote responsible research and oversight.
But it would be unwise to move forward without first taking stock of the political maneuvering leading up to the election results that may now create a substantial shift in federal law.
Most voters remember the barrage of advertisements and media coverage preceding the 2006 midterm election, which made stem cell research in some districts as hot of a campaign topic as the Mark Foley scandal, soaring deficits and the war in Iraq.
Everyone got into the act: Michael J. Fox and Rush Limbaugh pulled heart strings and rattled sabers, World Series baseball players and a former NFL MVP traded in their cleats and hit the stem cell campaign trail, and child actors begged audiences to vote for stem cell funding that might some day save their lives. There was no shame in their game.
Whether this politicking affected the midterm results, nobody really knows. What is clear is that voters heard an awful lot about stem cells. Typically, this would be all to the good; political debate often promotes public education.
But the complexities of embryonic stem cell research are unlike anything else the public has faced. And its treatment during the midterm election demonstrated how easily science gets simplified and distorted when it is reduced to 30-second sound bites and campaign slogans.
This polarization and simplification was due, in large part, to campaigns that framed this unknown with the familiar: abortion politics. Ongoing debates over embryos' moral status while inside women's wombs shaped how candidates discussed their status as research entities, bringing all the usual zealotry. One side grossly overpromised cures from still speculative research while the other side predictably understated its potential. Proponents used creative word craft to underplay this research's risks while skeptics equated research cloning with the reproductive cloning you might see in a '90s Schwarzenegger flick.
Similar political shenanigans put Californians through the ringer in 2004 during the state's Proposition 71 voter initiative, which is set to distribute $3 billion in public funds to embryonic stem cell researchers. More than two years later, the partisan distortions and hype about cures for everything from bad breath to cancer has fizzled to a stoic realization: We are possibly decades away from any clinical application. Even the state agency established to award research grants openly recognizes that.
What should be taken away from the midterm debate and California's experience is that this issue is not just about party politics. Rather, it is about encouraging important research to happen under a set of laws and policies that are fiscally and ethically responsible, balance priorities, and hold the industries and individuals that hope to profit accountable. Partisan politics has led traditional Democratic champions of government oversight for the common good to forget that Big Biotech -- not unlike its older siblings Big Pharma and Big Oil -- is an emerging multibillion-dollar industry that needs regulation to prevent abuses and promote the public interest. Otherwise, in 25 years or so, today's shocking $3-a-gallon gas may be a distant footnote to what your doctor's bill might look like.
As we look to the new Congress and the 2008 elections, let's hope the stem cell debate can be conducted more thoughtfully. If federal funding is expanded, a real debate can commence -- not on whether embryonic stem cell research should take place but on how and what kind. And, with federal funding in place, policymakers, scientists and voters alike will be in a position to talk about the kind of oversight needed to ensure that this research moves forward with common sense and common decency.
Osagie K. Obasogie is a bioethicist with the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif.; www.genetics-and-society.org Parita Shah is CGS' communications director. Both regularly contribute to the blog Biopolitical Times, www.biopoliticaltimes.org.
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