Leader Blues

Thursday, July 20, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Sen. Pryor’s priorities

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor always seems to be in the hot seat nowadays, owing to the close partisan division in the Senate and his emergence as a centrist peacemaker. You would never know it by the angry commercials directed at him by “independent” Republican groups, but the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Monday that Pryor had voted with President Bush 73.1 percent of the time in the last Congress, the second-highest percentage among Democrats. It suggests that the young senator is either cagey or thoughtful.

Especially thoughtful he was yesterday when he went against the president on a bill to expand federal spending on medical research that uses embryonic stem cells. President Bush is expected to veto the bill today, and the tougher fight to pass the bill over the president’s veto will follow. Pryor will be hammered again for voting with Sen. Ted Kennedy and against President Bush, but Arkansas voters will recognize both the principle and enlightened self-interest behind the young senator’s vote.

This is a bill that offers a glimmer of hope to tens of thousands of Arkansans suffering from incurable diseases that might soon yield to a cure fashioned in the stem-cell laboratories and to hundreds of thousands more — any of us — who will one day encounter one of the diseases.

You have heard this debate for years. A certain branch of religious extremism that captured Bush and a declining majority of Republicans in Congress maintains that destroying an embryonic cell for scientific research violates God’s teachings. The bill that passed the House of Representatives months ago and the Senate Tuesday is a very modest one. It will expand the number of stem-cell lines that can be used in federally funded research, but the lines could be derived only from surplus embryos that are to be destroyed at fertility clinics. The bill would allow them to be preserved instead for breakthrough biomedical research.

President Bush wants them destroyed, period. It would be morally better, he says, to just stamp them out rather than have them used to find cures for Alzheimer’s or any of the other diseases that have resisted medical research. Is that a moral stand or what?

Bush halted research in 2001 on all but 22 stem-cell lines that already existed. Those lines are deteriorating or unusable for other reasons, and the little embryonic stem-cell research in this country is ending. The bill is still far too restrictive because it will not allow federal funding for the most promising form of research, therapeutic cloning. The rest of the world will produce the major breakthroughs, leaving America in the backwaters of medical science. But the bill helps a little.
Pryor was compelled Monday to issue a statement explaining his vote to quell the demands from people back home responding to the right-wing appeals.

This is what he said:
“Stem-cell research has the potential to alleviate human suffering and the promise to treat and cure disabling diseases and conditions such as diabetes, cancer, spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s. These are diseases many of us have personally witnessed within our families, churches and communities. There are children in Arkansas who are living with juvenile diabetes every minute of every day, and it would be a disservice to them not to do all we can to find a cure. We must allow responsible scientists the flexibility they need to advance the science of stem-cell research in order to provide hope for the future.”

Many partisans may hold that vote against Pryor, but if Congress can muster the will to override the Bush veto, their children will have occasion one day to thank him.