I'm one of those who has been saying for a couple of years that stem cell research would be a major issue in the race for governor of Wisconsin -- and that it would be a wedge issue that would pull moderate Republicans away from Mark Green's candidacy and help Jim Doyle.
I still believe that.
But Green and the GOP have been doing everything they can to muddy the waters and obscure the real issues and differences between Green and Doyle.
And I am a little concerned that they just might get away with it, if the media doesn't sharpen its coverage -- and if Doyle and his campaign don't offer a little more clarity, too.
But now the Catholic bishops have spoken out, and in doing so they may have unwittingly helped to make it clear what the issue is and where the candidates stand, which will help Doyle in November.
The debate and disagreement are not about stem cell research per se. Everyone I know of, in both parties, supports the general concept of stem cell research -- at least when we are talking about adult stem cells.
Where there is a sharp divide is over the use of embryonic stem cells for research. That's what the debate is about. Unfortunately, all too often that gets abbreviated into "stem cell research," which will wind up confusing voters if the debate does not become more precise.
Stem cell research holds out the hope -- but not the guarantee -- of cures and treatments for a variety of debilitating and/or fatal diseases. The National Institutes of Health's list includes Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.Adult v. embryonic stem cells
Scientists have been able to do experiments with human embryonic stem cells (hESC) only since 1998, when a group led by Dr. James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin developed a technique to isolate and grow the cells. Moreover, Federal funds to support hESC research have been available since only August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced his decision on Federal funding for hESC research. Because many academic researchers rely on Federal funds to support their laboratories, they are just beginning to learn how to grow and use the cells. Thus, although hESC are thought to offer potential cures and therapies for many devastating diseases, research using them is still in its early stages.
Adult stem cells, such as blood-forming stem cells in bone marrow (called hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs), are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases. Doctors have been transferring HSCs in bone marrow transplants for over 40 years. More advanced techniques of collecting, or "harvesting," HSCs are now used in order to treat leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders.
The clinical potential of adult stem cells has also been demonstrated in the treatment of other human diseases that include diabetes and advanced kidney cancer. However, these newer uses have involved studies with a very limited number of patients.
So when Mark Green says he supports stem cell research, as he does whenever he's asked about it, he is talking about adult stem cells, which have been used for 40 years. No one is against that.
But embryonic stem cells are another matter.
Because those cells are developed from human embryos, conservative religious and "right-to-life" groups (and now the Catholic bishops) oppose their use. Embryos, in their eyes, are human beings, and destroying one is like taking a human life. They are not swayed by the fact that there are 400,000 frozen embryos in storage, most of which will eventually be destroyed. They are extras, leftovers that were created for in vitro fertilization but never were used, and never will be.
The political debate over embryonic stem cell research touches most Americans because we all know someone who suffers from a disease who perhaps could benefit from the research. Governor Doyle's mother, Ruth, who died recently, had suffered from Parkinson's for years. He believes that embryonic stem cell research may spare others from that fate.GOP Congress defies Bush
At the federal level, many House Republicans -- but not Mark Green -- defied President Bush last year and voted to expand funding and remove some of the restrictions Bush has placed on embryonic stem cell research. Majority Leader Bill Frist has stalled the bill in the Senate, where it is said to have 60 votes, and Bush has threatened to use his first veto if the bill passes.
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, conservative Republicans who run the legislature have tried every means possible to discourage, restrict, or outlaw embryonic stem cell research in the state or, failing that, to prevent any public money from being used for it. While other states are scrambling to try to develop research facilities, Wisconsin, home to the nation's leading researcher, is trying to discourage it.
It should come as no surprise that a majority of people in Wisconsin and in the US favor embryonic stem cell research. (Pro-life groups will tell you otherwise, but the numbers are indisputable.)Green slips and slides
So the best hope of the opponents, like Mark Green, is not to get caught on the wrong side of the issue -- to assure opponents that he's with them, but to try to confuse the general public into thinking he supports embryonic stem cell research -- which is clearly not true.
Last weekend, on Wisconsin Public Television's "Here and Now," Frederica Freyberg asked Green about the issue:
Freyberg: And, and what about your position on embryonic stem cell research?
Green: Well, again, I think we're pretty clear. We've helped double funding for the NIH. I've co-authored stem cell research. I just don't believe that the research that we do should be without at least some ethical lines. That's the difference between Jim Doyle and I. He would place no restrictions whatsoever on research, including human cloning. I think that's a mistake and I think that's out of step with Wisconsin values.
He's slippery, and she was running out of time and didn't follow up. But she specifically asked him about embryonic
stem cell research. If you read Green's answer, you'd think he had "co-sponsored" embryonic stem cell research, when in fact he has opposed it and voted against it at every opportunity. He raises human cloning, a non-issue, and does his best to obscure this basic truth: It is Mark Green who is out of step with the people of Wisconsin on this important issue. Doyle, his campaign, and the Democratic Party have been highlighting the differences.
All of which brings us, if anyone is still reading, to two exchanges that took place on Wednesday.
First, Gov. Doyle called for
the US Senate to pass the bill expanding embryonic stem cell research.Right-to-Life, bishops enter the fray
Wisconsin Right to Life fired back a release
accusing Doyle of hiding the fact that it is embryonic stem cell research he supports. Although Doyle's statement could have made that clearer, the first sentence of his release clearly used the word "embryonic," even if it just became "stem cell research" later in the statement.
Wisconsin Democrats used the opportunity to accuse Green of being the one who's hiding his true position on the issue, citing
Green's record of opposition to embryonic stem cell research.
The the Catholic Church entered the fray, with two bishops writing Doyle to say -- well, it's hard to tell exactly what. Their letter
seemed to object mostly to Doyle citing economic development arguments for embryonic stem cell research, although the bishops also say they oppose it on moral grounds anyway -- although curing diseases sounds like a better, if flawed, argument to them.
Doyle responded politely, but firmly restated his support for embryonic stem cell research and told the bishops:
I have met countless families in Wisconsin whose loved ones are suffering from juvenile diabetes or Parkinson's or spinal cord injuries. Because of the potential of stem cell research, these families now have hope that one day science and medicine may find a cure for these conditions. As Governor, I cannot allow politics or shortsighted acts by the Legislature to take away the hope these families have.
Leading scientists like Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin have told us that while adult stem cell research has promise, it is no substitute for human embryonic stem cell research. Both forms of research should be pursued, and it would be irresponsible to pursue one to the exclusion of the other, especially since many scientists believe that the versatility of embryonic stem cells means they may have a far greater potential to save lives.
Every day, couples in fertility clinics who are unable to conceive a child on their own must decide what to do with their unused embryos. Some couples choose to donate these embryos to further stem cell research in the hopes of saving lives. Otherwise, the embryos are destroyed. Therefore, the ultimate question isn't whether embryos will be destroyed, but whether we should use a few of those unused embryos to be used in saving lives instead of discarding them. I believe we should come down on the side of saving lives.
That is what the debate is all about.
As this campaign proceeds, let's hope Doyle presses his point and makes it very clear what the differences are between the candidates and what is at stake. The bishops have helped to do that, and Green's spokesman says Green thinks the bishops' position is "right on."
It is too critical an issue to let Mark Green dance around it and pretend to be on one side when he's really on the other. Now, thanks to the bishops, he's out of hiding.
Let the debate begin.
This is the kind of wild claim you'll hear, in this case from an Outagamie County Republican
Let’s be clear about this. Democrats support embryonic stem cell research using aborted babies.
Yes, let's be clear about this. Those embryos are not "babies" by any stretch of the imagination. They are not even fetuses. And they are not being "aborted" for stem cell research. This adds nothing to the debate, although it does stir up the hard-line anti-abortion, anti-birth control crowd.
Seth Zlotocha says the bishops actually are helping Doyle
, but not on purpose.
Bill Wineke says this is the kind of debate we should have.