Stem-Cell Research Vote Approaches in Senate

As stem-cell research comes to a vote in the Senate, and President Bush threatens his first veto, Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers his sketch of the members of Congress making their arguments. Supporters of research like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), otherwise a staunch ally of Bush and of the Religious Right, cited the medical promise of embryonic stem cells, while others pointed out that they, like many Americans, have family members who suffer from or died of currently untreatable diseases like Parkinson’s. “Had the research and stem cells been available, I wouldn’t have had Hodgkin’s,” added Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania).

Bush’s congressional allies, meanwhile, were mailing it in yesterday. GOP Reps. Joseph Pitts (Pa.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Dave Weldon (Fla.) called a “background briefing” on stem cells for 11 a.m. in the Cannon House Office Building — but none of the three showed up. …

In the Senate, Bush’s defense was taken up almost exclusively by the chamber’s two most ardent religious conservatives, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And they were having a tough time of it. …

Brownback brought a group of parents of children grown from “adopted” embryos to make his point. “My daughter was flown out FedEx from the East Coast to the West Coast, where I live,” reported Maria Lancaster. “She had been in the freezer four years.”

Marlene Strege, with her 7-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an embryo, displayed a drawing by the girl of an embryo asking, “Are you going to kill me?”

Strege’s daughter is one of a handful of children whose mothers used embryos left over from fertility treatment under a program called Snowflakes, which has received at least $1 million from the Bush administration. The difference between frozen leftover embryos considered less likely to be successful and grown children is similarly ignored by former Family Research Council president Ken Connor, now chairman of the Center for a Just Society, who decries the embryonic stem-cell research bill and writes, “Big people are not worth more than small ones, and the old are not worth more than the young. … Young or old, big or little, in the womb or out — we are all God’s children, entitled to equal protection under the law.”

Brownback’s use of children as stage-pieces is reminiscent of a similar ploy by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania). During debate on the so-called “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” in 1997, Santorum brought a four-year-old to the Senate and pointed to her from the floor, saying, “What they wanted to do was kill this baby by stabbing her in the base of the skull and suctioning her brains out.” (Baltimore Sun, Jan. 4, 2004.) As Santorum is facing an uphill battle to retain his seat and is seeking to moderate his image, perhaps Brownback is a natural heir to the role Santorum plays as the far right’s primary Senate agent for extreme and uncompromising rhetoric.