Sunday, July 23, 2006


The Passion of the Embryos


HOW time flies when democracy is on the march in the Middle East!
Five whole years have passed since ominous Qaeda chatter reached
its pre-9/11 fever pitch, culminating in the President's Daily Brief of
Aug. 6, 2001: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

History has since condemned President Bush for ignoring that intelligence.
But to say that he did nothing that summer is a bum rap. Just three days
later, on Aug. 9, he took a break from clearing brush in Crawford to reveal
the real priority of his presidency, which had nothing to do with a nuisance
like terrorism. His first prime-time address after more than six months in
office was devoted to embryonic stem-cell research instead. Placing his
profound religious convictions above the pagan narcissism of Americans
hoping for cures to diseases like Parkinson's and diabetes, he decreed
restrictions to shackle the advance of medical science.

Whatever else is to be said about the Decider, he's consistent. Having
dallied again this summer while terrorism upends the world, he has once more
roused himself to take action - on stem cells. His first presidential veto
may be bad news for the critically ill, but it was a twofer for the White
House. It not only flattered the president's base. It also drowned out some
awkward news: the prime minister he installed in Baghdad, Nuri al-Maliki,
and the fractious Parliament of Iraq's marvelous new democracy had called a
brief timeout from their civil war to endorse the sole cause that unites
them, the condemnation of Israel.

The news is not all dire, however. While Mr. Bush's Iraq project threatens
to deliver the entire region to Iran's ayatollahs, this month may also be
remembered as a turning point in America's own religious wars. The president's
politically self-destructive stem-cell veto and the simultaneous undoing of
the religious right's former golden boy, Ralph Reed, in a Republican primary
for lieutenant governor in Georgia are landmark defeats for the faith-based
politics enshrined by Mr. Bush's presidency. If we can't beat the ayatollahs
over there, maybe we're at least starting to rout them here.

That the administration's stem-cell policy is a political fiasco for its
proponents is evident from a single fact: Bill Frist, the most craven
politician in Washington, ditched the president. In past pandering to his
party's far-right fringe, Mr. Frist, who calls himself a doctor,
misdiagnosed the comatose Terri Schiavo's condition after watching her on
videotape and, in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, refused to
dispute an abstinence program's canard that tears and sweat could transmit
AIDS. If Senator Frist is belatedly standing up for stem-cell research, you
can bet he's read some eye-popping polls. His ignorance about H.I.V.
notwithstanding, he also knows that the facts about stem cells are not on
Mr. Bush's side.

The voting public has learned this, too. Back in 2001, many Americans gave
the president the benefit of the doubt when he said that his stem-cell
"compromise" could make "more than 60" cell lines available for federally
financed study. Those lines turned out to be as illusory as Saddam's weapons
of mass destruction: there were only 22, possibly all of them now
contaminated or otherwise useless. Fittingly, the only medical authority to
endorse the Bush policy at the time, the Houston cancer doctor John
Mendelsohn, was a Bush family friend. He would later become notorious for
lending his empirical skills to the Enron board's audit committee.

This time around, with the administration's credibility ruined by Iraq,
official lies about science didn't fly. When Karl Rove said that embryonic
stem cells weren't required because there was "far more promise from adult
stem cells," The Chicago Tribune investigated and found that the White House
couldn't produce a single stem-cell researcher who agreed. (Ahmad Chalabi,
alas, has no medical degree.) In the journal Science, three researchers
summed up the consensus of the reality-based scientific community:
misleading promises about adult stem cells "cruelly deceive patients."

No less cruelly deceptive was the photo op staged to sell Mr. Bush's veto:
television imagery of the president cradling so-called Snowflake babies,
born via in vitro fertilization from frozen embryos that had been "adopted."
As Senator Arlen Specter has pointed out, only 128 of the 400,000 or so
rejected embryos languishing in deep freeze in fertility clinics have been
adopted. Many of the rest are destined to be tossed in the garbage.

If you believe, as Mr. Bush says he does, that either discarding or
conducting research with I.V.F. embryos is murder, then fertility clinic
doctors, like stem-cell researchers, belong on death row. But the president,
so proud of drawing a firm "moral" line, will no sooner crack down on I.V.F.
than he did on Kim Jong Il: The second-term Bush has been downsized to a
paper tiger. His party's base won't be so shy. Sam Brownback, the Kansas
Republican who led the Senate anti-stem-cell offensive and sees himself as
the religious right's presidential candidate, has praised the idea of
limiting the number of eggs fertilized in vitro to "one or two at a time." A
Kentucky state legislator offered a preview of coming attractions, writing a
bill making the fertilization of multiple eggs in I.V.F. treatments a

Tacticians in both political parties have long theorized that if a
conservative Supreme Court actually struck down Roe v. Wade, it would set
Republicans back at the polls for years. Mr. Bush's canonization of clumps
of frozen cells over potential cancer cures may jump-start that backlash.
We'll see this fall. Already one Republican senatorial candidate, Michael
Steele of Maryland, has stepped in Mr. Bush's moral morass by
egregiously comparing stem-cell research to Nazi experiments on Jews
during the Holocaust.

Mr. Reed's primary defeat is as much a blow to religious-right political
clout as the White House embrace of stem-cell fanaticism. The man who
revolutionized the face of theocratic politics in the 1990's with a
telegenic choirboy's star power has now changed his movement's face again,
this time to mud.

The humiliating Reed defeat - by 12 points against a lackluster rival in a
conservative primary in a conservative state - is being pinned on his
association with the felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who also tainted that
other exemplar of old-time religion, Tom DeLay. True enough, but it's what
Mr. Reed did for Mr. Abramoff's clients that is most damning, far more so
than the golf junkets and money-grubbing. The causes Mr. Reed enabled
through manufactured grass-roots campaigns (unwittingly, he maintains) were
everything he was supposedly against: Indian casinos and legal loopholes
that allowed forced abortions and sexual slavery in the work force of an
American commonwealth, the Northern Mariana Islands.

Hypocrisy among self-aggrandizing evangelists is as old as Elmer Gantry -
older, actually. But Mr. Reed wasn't some campfire charlatan. He was the
religious right's most effective poster boy in mainstream America. He had
been recruited for precisely that mission by Pat Robertson, who made him the
frontman for the Christian Coalition in 1989, knowing full well that Mr.
Reed's smarts and youth could do P.R. wonders that Mr. Robertson and the
rest of the baggage-laden Falwell generation of Moral Majority demagogues
could not. And it worked. In 1995, Mr. Reed was rewarded with the cover of
Time, for representing "the most thorough penetration of the secular world
of American politics by an essentially religious organization in this

Actually, the Christian Coalition was soon to be accused of inflating its
membership, Enron-accounting style, and was careening into debt. Only three
years after his Time cover, Mr. Reed, having ditched the coalition to set up
shop as a political consultant, sent his self-incriminating e-mail to Mr.
Abramoff: "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!" He also humped in
noncorporate accounts, like the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

By 2005 Mr. Reed had become so toxic that Mr. Bush wouldn't be caught on
camera with him in Georgia. But the Bush-Rove machine was nonetheless yoked
to Mr. Reed in their crusades: the demonization of gay couples as boogeymen
(and women) in election years, the many assaults on health (not just in
stem-cell laboratories but in federal agencies dealing with birth control
and sex education), the undermining of the science of evolution. The beauty
of Mr. Reed's unmasking is the ideological impact: the radical agenda to
which he lent an ersatz respectability has lost a big fig leaf, and all the
president's men, tied down like Gulliver in Iraq, cannot put it together
again to bamboozle suburban voters.

It's possible that even Joe Lieberman, a fellow traveler in the religious
right's Schiavo and indecency jeremiads, could be swept out with Rick
Santorum in the 2006 wave. Mr. Lieberman is hardly the only Democrat in the
Senate who signed on to the war in Iraq, but he's surely the most
sanctimonious. He is also the only Democrat whose incessant Bible thumping
(while running for vice president in 2000) was deemed "inappropriate and
even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours" by the
Anti-Defamation League. As Ralph Reed used to say: amen.

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion." Steven Weinberg
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