- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

President Clinton could not contain his excitement last week at the National Institutes of Health's decision to fund stem-cell research on "surplus" human embryos. This has "potentially staggering benefits," he said.

Al Gore, America's techno-populist, likewise declared in his convention speech that "within the next few years, scientists will identify the genes that cause every type of cancer." "We need a national commitment equal to the promise of this unequaled moment," Mr. Gore said. Genetic medicine is, he has realized, the new frontier of New Democrat populism, the perfect issue.

Populism is, after all, a politics of promises: to end all prejudice and inequality, to end material and psychic hardship, to liberate "working families" from "special interests," to make medical miracles a universal right.

So in a time of general prosperity, when most voters don't really feel oppressed by the companies that make the things they like to buy, or by the companies they work for, or by the companies they own stock in, populists need new promises. Enter stem cells, the new new thing in genetic medicine, an amalgam of everything Clinton-Blair-Gore liberalism has to offer: cosmic justice in the here-and-now, happiness for all, moral autonomy over one's body and one's (potential) offspring.

Al Gore believes this genetic populism will win him the White House. He has played at the medical heartstrings of the nation (or at least tried). In his convention speech, he shared the story of Seattle boy "I will never forget a little boy named Ian Malone… . " who suffered from a medical mistake at childbirth. "Their HMO told the Malones it would no longer pay for the nurse they needed, and then told them that they should consider giving Ian up for adoption. It's just wrong to have life-and-death medical decisions made by bean-counters at HMOs who don't have a license to practice medicine, and don't have a right to play God." Better to leave the God-playing to the NIH.

Discovered just two years ago, scientists believe and it appears with very sound evidence that the genetically undifferentiated cells found in human embryos (called "pluripotent stem cells") can be used to cure a whole host of diseases and injuries, from Parkinson's to spinal cord injuries to cancer. To develop these miracle cures, researchers need human embryos, which they get from abortions, fertility clinics and (coming soon in Britain) human cloning.

Until now, the NIH has accepted the congressional ban on federally funded human embryo research, while privately funded scientists and bio-tech companies have moved zealously ahead.

Now the NIH believes that stem-cell research is too important and too promising not to invest in, and that the congressional ban does not apply to stem cells anyway. (The bill's sponsors, Rep. Jay Dickey, Arkansas Republican, and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, disagree.) The new NIH guidelines lift the ban and give a national endorsement and soon an influx of funding to use human embryos within certain "ethical guidelines": Public researchers have to get their cells from private suppliers rather than extracting the cells themselves from the discarded embryos; embryo donors cannot profit from their donations or specify who should receive their embryo's stem cells; and, for now anyway, no human cloning, which Britain announced last week it would allow so long as the embryos are discarded within 14 days.

The emotional and scientific appeal of stem-cell research is irresistible: What daughter doesn't want to bring her dying mother back from the brink of Alzheimer's? What father doesn't want his crippled son to walk again? Who isn't moved to tears by TV documentaries about people suffering from Parkinson's Disease or cancer? Suffering, as it should be, is repugnant to us. We want to end it.

And unless one strongly believes that suffering is part of man's estate that the injustice of who lives and who dies, who is sick and who is not, is a fact of human existence to be dealt with stoically or religiously then the drive to obliterate suffering (to "save and improve lives") wins out over all other considerations (such as the repugnance of harvesting human embryos for personal, political, or corporate gain).

Many things can be said of the present age, but stoicism is not one of them. And for all the front-page stories about Joe Lieberman's religious orthodoxy and the recent books about the nation's widespread religiosity, we are not an otherworldly, self-denying people but a this-worldly, self-affirming, self-demanding people. And so, those who say that some of the means of ending suffering are more repugnant than the suffering itself in the end, they lose and have lost. Such philosophical, religious, and moral repugnance, such restraint and self-denial, is the very thing we are no longer capable of, at least not collectively.

And so, for the same reason that liberals defend everything from assisted suicide to Prozac, they now defend stem-cell research: Everyone has a right not to suffer; no one should feel pain if the government scientists can help.

"I think we cannot walk away from the potential to save lives and improve lives, to help people literally get up and walk, to do all kinds of things we could never have imagined," said President Clinton in his press conference. He is right: New Democrat populists cannot walk away, and they don't want to.

Brave New Liberalism is here. Brave New World, here we come.



Eric Cohen is the managing editor of the Public Interest.

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