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Published: Thursday, 8/4/2005

A break with the President

IT WOULD be naive to think Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist suddenly saw the light about the medical potential of embryonic stem-cell research. Like every politician in Washington eyeing the 2006 election or, in Senator Frist's case, a bigger prize in 2008, his change of position on expanding federal financing came with some calculation.

Even so, his switch is welcome - and correct.

It should give added weight to the House-passed legislation expanding federal funding of such research when it comes up for expected Senate debate and a vote in the fall. Still, the Tennessee Republican displayed a rare partisan break with the President when he stood on the floor of the Senate and endorsed what a month before he had rejected.

The backlash from Christian conservatives was swift and certain. "Senator Frist should not expect support and endorsement from the pro-life community if he votes for embryonic research funding," declared the Christian Defense Coalition. President Bush has threatened to veto the stem-cell legislation on the grounds that it would involve destroying human embryos.

But the Frist reversal on a bill that would overturn funding limits on stem-cell research imposed by Mr. Bush in 2001, was defended by the heart-lung transplant surgeon turned lawmaker as "not just a matter of faith, it's a matter of science." The Senate leader thinks the House bill needs clarification on the ethical framework for donating frozen embryos used in research but argues it's time funding limits were lifted.

"While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitation put into place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases," he said.

The potential presidential candidate added that "embryonic stem cells uniquely hold specific promise for some therapies and potential cures that adult stem cells just cannot provide."

Embryonic stem cells can be transformed into many other type of cells with the possibility of regenerating damaged organs or tissues. But strong moral and ethical differences among research debaters, combined with the related role of federal funding, has kept the issue politically charged.

It is probably no coincidence that Mr. Frist had his apparent change of heart on the matter the same week a TV ad was launched in New Hampshire by research proponents accusing him of dragging his feet on the issue in the Senate. No politician eyeing the White House wants to start off trailing in that state.

Trying to please both centrists and conservatives by arguing that his positions on abortion and stem-cell research are not inconsistent could backfire. Both groups are understandably suspicious of the majority leader's transparent pandering.

But in the Senate, when colleagues consider the issue after their August recess, the influence of the chamber's only medical professional on a thorny medical and moral bill could be significant in helping to pass the measure.

And whether policy or politics motivated Bill Frist to suddenly land on the side of expanded stem-cell funding, he made the right decision.



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