Ben Bova: Candidate’s campaign distorts stem-cell research aims

Every Fourth of July I think of the words spoken by the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address:

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others?”

In other words, if we can’t govern ourselves, who can? Kings? Tycoons? Dictators?

This nation has been an experiment in self-government for 234 years. The experiment is still going on.

This year we will elect a new governor. A newcomer to the political scene, Rick Scott, is running well ahead of Attorney General Bill McCollum for the Republican Party’s nomination. Scott is a lawyer and former hospital executive.

Fine. An outsider from the world of business versus a Tallahassee insider. The public seems to be in an anti-incumbent mood, so Scott’s lead over McCollum is no surprise.

But there’s something about the Scott campaign that bothers me. Both in his campaign literature and his television advertisements, Scott has taken an extremely conservative stance about embryonic stem-cell research.

“Make no mistake,” says one of the flyers sent through the mail. “Embryonic stem-cell research is abortion.”

I beg to differ, on two points.

First, by taking his “100 percent pro-life” stand, Scott implies that abortion is evil. The law of this land says otherwise. Women have a legal right to an abortion, under fairly broad circumstances. Many religious conservatives don’t agree with that, but the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is legal.

Moreover, Scott’s advertisements equate Planned Parenthood with abortion. This is a serious distortion. Planned Parenthood helps women with contraception, counseling and other services. Abortion is considered, for the most part, as a last desperate measure to end an unwanted pregnancy, to be resorted to only when all else fails.

Scott and other conservatives have a perfect right to their opinions against abortion, but to distort the realities seems to me to be playing politics with an issue that is of central importance to women.

Since Scott portrays himself as a political outsider, not interested in “politics as usual,” I find his attitude deceptive, at best.

Secondly, Scott claims that “the use of embryos for biomedical research is destruction of a human life.”

The embryos that biomedical researchers use have already been discarded by fertility clinics. They are not going to be carried to term; they are not going to become human children.

“President (George W.) Bush banned the use of federal tax dollars to fund embryonic stem-cell research.” That is just flat untrue. George W. was the first president to allow federal funding for stem-cell research. True, the funding was allowed only on very narrow circumstances. But Scott’s statement is either mistaken or a deliberate misstatement of the facts.

President Barack Obama has liberalized federal funding for stem-cell research, a step that Scott apparently regards as heinous.

The joker in this pack is that researchers have learned how to develop workable stem cells from normal human cells, so the need for embryonic stem cells will eventually disappear.

To make an issue of embryonic stem-cell research is an obvious play for the votes of religious conservatives.

If Scott and the extreme right wing voters have their way, stem-cell research would come to a halt, an end to the bright promise of a new era in medicine where stem-cell therapies can repair and rebuild tissues, organs, even limbs that are damaged or diseased.

Religious conservatives have opposed new medical discoveries in the past. Vaccination against smallpox was stridently opposed on the grounds that the disease is a visitation from God, and to try to prevent it is flying in the face of God’s will. Anesthesia should not be administered to women in labor, religious moralists once intoned, because the Bible says that women should bring forth their young in pain and suffering.

Hogwash. The religious objections to abortion should not blind us to the opportunities of healing the sick and crippled that stem-cell therapy promises. To oppose stem-cell research by characterizing it as a form of abortion is deceptive and unworthy of a man who wants to be governor of this state.

Ben Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “Immortality,” a nonfiction examination of life extension research. Dr. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com

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