Politics & Policy

Romney Vs. Harvard

Is the Bay State a make-or-break point for the culture of life?

“It’s about saving lives and helping children.”

That’s usually the starting point for any conversation on stem-cell research and cloning. (It all generally gets muddled from there, once people start talking scientific and moral specifics they often don’t understand.) Proponents of embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning want to help; opponents don’t care about sick people. On the surface, it’s pretty clear which side everyone instinctually wants to be on there. And that’s the set-up in Massachusetts, circa right now: It’s how the state senate’s president, Robert Travaglini, set the debate at an emotional press conference on Thursday.

Earlier that morning, via the New York Times, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney stole a little thunder from determined human-cloning advocates at Harvard and in the Massachusetts statehouse. On Wednesday, Travaglini had introduced a bill that would allow government and privately funded embryonic-stem-cell research and so-called “therapeutic” cloning in the Bay State. Romney announced that he would oppose any legislation that would allow for the creation of new human embryos for scientific experiments. He told the Times that “Some of the practices that Harvard and probably other institutions in Massachusetts are engaged in cross the line of ethical conduct.”

Travaglini, cloning-advocates’ point man in the state senate, quickly got the Boston media back on topic later in the day: “[T]he goal” of his legislation “is to save lives,” he said at his press conference.

None of Travaglini’s over-the-top panacea rhetoric, however, was as effective as the activist mother of a young girl he invited to speak, who pulled, understandably, at the heartstrings. Her daughter is “a slave to illness”–chronic diabetes. We learned about her daughter’s painful life:

She has had a medical appointment every two hours of her life for the past eight years. Her fingertips are shredded from 30,000 times that she has pricked her finger. She has been in the hospital critically ill 14 times. If you saw her, you would never know it. She smiles. She’s happy. She’s a straight-A student. That’s because she has hope. And I’ll tell you that a lot of that hope has to do with stem-cell research.

That is, embryonic-stem-cell-research.

But that emotional framing of the debate is disingenuous for a few reasons, the first being that the governor has presented a compromise position: In a non-ideal (from the pro-life vantage point) but pragmatic compromise move, Romney has decided to support experimentation on surplus frozen embryos from in-vitro fertilization procedures. But proponents of embryonic-stem-cell research refuse to meet him there. They want it all.

As Romney put it in a press conference on Thursday, “All of the rhetoric has been, ‘We are throwing away embryos–surplus embryos–that could be used for stem-cell research and that makes no sense.’… And now, now that I’ve said, ‘Ok, I support that,’ now [the other side says], ‘No, that’s insufficient. How could you possibly limit it to that?’ Well, that’s what they’ve been asking for.”

In other words, Romney has called their bluff.

As Travaglini said Thursday: “We should do everything we can to make sure it happens here.” But his “it” is unnecessarily extreme. On the very same day, in fact, in the pages of his hometown paper, the Boston Globe, it was reported that University of California at San Diego researchers had discovered “cells in the heart that can create new muscle cells, raising hopes that doctors may find dramatic new ways to treat heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death.” Not uncharacteristic of the stem-cell debate writ large, the big-money and big-mouth voices behind “stem-cell research” are narrowly focused on embryos, not on the available–and in many cases more promising–alternatives.

Hearings are expected in the Massachusetts statehouse on Wednesday of next week and will draw a parade of emotion, including expected testimony from hometown favorite Travis Roy, a former Boston University athlete whose hockey career was ended by a freak accident during his first college game. Ray would speak in favor of legal embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning.

Romney himself, however, is in a unique position for a politician facing this issue–and for that reason perhaps one of the best spokesmen for his side in the state. His wife, Ann, who he is not shy to say is one of his key advisers on these ethical issues, has M.S. So the hope of stem-cell research is one that hits close to home for the governor–and, tactically, takes some of the sting away from the usual “heartless Republican” accusation hurled by proponents of the all-or-nothing approach.

At the moment the Romney team has got to hang many of its legislative hopes on undecided/willing-to-be-persuaded legislators who could help build a strange-bedfellow coalition. In terms of statewide support, the Mormon Romney’s most obvious ally may be Massachusetts Catholics, who were with him on gay marriage, and will likely be with him again on the stem-cells and cloning big picture. (Forty-nine percent of Catholics, by the way, voted for Bush in November–up 17 points from 2000, in no doubt part influenced by the marriage debate.)

But it’s going to be an uphill battle nonetheless for Romney. And the stakes are high, even aside from the intensely personal aspect of the issue for the Romneys. For a governor who is buzzed about as a potential 2008 presidential contender, Romney vs. Harvard could set not only his political fate but a significant precedent in a country that currently has no restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research or cloning. With a cloning prohibition not on the schedule in the near future in the U.S. Capitol, and with California and New Jersey having already green lighted state-funded cloning, Massachusetts may be the primary battleground for Brave New World policymaking in the coming months.

Romney has started out of the gates playing it straight. “I am in favor of stem-cell research. I am not in favor of creating new human embryos through cloning,” he told the press on Thursday. Whether honesty will be enough to get him a coalition that will support a ban on cloning or sustain a veto of the Harvard wish list remains to be seen. The implications of failure, however, are crystal clear.

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