Wedge Issue

Aug 4, 2004

The Slate has an article up about stem cell research, an issue the democrats hope will drive a wedge between the Republican party and its voters. I find the whole issue of stem cell research pretty interesting for two reasons. One, the issue itself is full of unknowns and promises. Two, I’m with the Democrats on this one.

On the surface — and, I should note, we are often encouraged to look at only the surface — it sounds like a simple issue. Barriers exist, in the form of a lack of Federal funding for human embryonic research. These barriers hamper scientific progress, science that has the potential to save lives. In the name of Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and more all efforts must be made. Those barriers must be removed.

This one is personal. My father and father-in-law have diabetes. My grandfather died of Parkinson’s, a disease I couldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Trapped in your body, unable to function is not the way to go. Parkinson’s is another checkmark in my family medical history, that list where an empty checkbox signals strength and a pencil mark echoes with fears of the future.

This fear drives my interest. Stem cell research feels urgent, something that can’t come fast enough. I’ve seen a battle lost to a disease that stem cell research seeks to cure. I witness battles still in progress.

I worry about the role of the religious right, a group I often feel a part of, in the President’s decision to limit federal research. Ron Reagan, at the Democratic National Convention expressed similar worries:

Now, there are those who would stand in the way of this remarkable future, who would deny the federal funding so crucial to basic research. They argue that interfering with the development of even the earliest stage embryo, even one that will never be implanted in a womb and will never develop into an actual fetus, is tantamount to murder.

A few of these folks, needless to say, are just grinding a political axe and they should be ashamed of themselves. But many but many many are well-meaning and sincere. Their belief is just that, an article of faith, and they are entitled to it. But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.

Compared to Reagan’s grandiose remarks, the actual policy of the President seems muted. It seems reasoned and well thought out. It appears sensitive to the issue of life.

Unlike Reagan, I can appreciate the concept of an embryonic life. I don’t necessarily agree — much like my thoughts on abortion don’t coincide with the Republican party — but I can appreciate the debate. What is and isn’t life is a sticky argument. It’s a fight I don’t feel particularly qualified to weigh in on, even if a position in this argument appears essential to taking a strong position with the entire issue of stem cell research.

Also unlike Reagan, I recognize that no funding of certain types of embryonic stem cell research is not the equivalent to no funding at all. It might not be obvious, particularly if you spent the last week looking through the windows of the DNC, but quite the opposite is true. This issue isn’t the Democrats’ issue alone. The issue isn’t about the pie. It’s about a piece of the pie and how big that piece really is.

Politicians — and, in some respects, researchers alike — want us to believe that stem cell research is a cure all. That’s unlikely to be the case. It does, however, provide a great source of hope, both nationwide and within my home. That hope feeds my fervor. On this one issue, I waver, surprised to find myself leaning towards the other side of the political fence and concerned about political plays on my hope. A wedge issue has been found, even if the Democrats go out of their way to overstate their case. I hope they are careful with it.

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