Santorum takes on thorny stem-cell research issue

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has taken on a divisive issue for Republicans: stem-cell research.

The dedicated Roman Catholic and fierce opponent of abortion rights has not wavered in his position against research into embryonic stem cells, even though his senior home-state GOP colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter, supports the research.

But Santorum has ventured into a debate about theoretical alternatives to embryonic research that not all conservatives are ready to embrace.

Santorum and Specter introduced legislation last month to promote new methods of stem-cell research that would not require the destruction of a human embryo. The bill is based on science recommended by a President’s Council on Bioethics report last May.

At a briefing in the Capitol on Thursday, Santorum hosted scientists conducting research in these areas. In a written statement issued afterward, Santorum said his legislation strikes the right balance between medical science and ethics: “I am confident in this bill — it is pro-scientific progress, pro-stem-cell research and pro-cures for diseases, but does not compromise my commitment to protecting innocent embryonic life.”

Under a directive issued by President Bush in 2001, federal dollars can flow only to research on embryonic stem cells that were available at the time. The House passed a bill last May to broaden the funding policy, but the Senate has not brought it to a vote despite strong bipartisan support and an endorsement from Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The White House, for its part, stands by the current rules.

Although the stem-cell issue generally favors Democrats, Santorum’s opponent, Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., is immune to any political rewards in this area because he, too, rejects research into embryonic stem cells. Unlike Santorum, Casey has not actively engaged in the debate.

Santorum’s foray into such a thorny area for Republicans carries considerable political risks.

He has had to take into careful consideration the concerns among conservative activists that these alternative research methods also present moral and ethical quandaries. Santorum has to pay special attention to his normally reliable conservative base because of lingering discontent about his endorsement of Specter in a primary challenge by then-Rep. Pat Toomey in 2004.

To be sure, Santorum stands little chance of winning over voters who are adamant about wanting to see the federal government finance more embryonic-stem-cell research, which most scientists agree promises the best benefits for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

But Santorum’s active involvement with the issue could help soften the criticism that he is not willing to compromise on hot-button issues.

Santorum is vulnerable on social issues such as stem cells and abortion among moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs and must sway those voters to prevail in December, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“He desperately needs to do better in the Philly suburbs, or he can’t win,” said Madonna, who also directs the college’s Keystone Poll.

Suburban Philadelphia is not friendly territory for Republican incumbents this year, with Reps. Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick all facing strong Democratic challenges.

Santorum also must contend with anti-incumbent sentiments in the state. Voters ousted 11 Republican state legislators in this month’s primary, along with a smaller number of Democrats.

With public-opinion polls showing strong support for embryonic-stem-cell research, conservatives who oppose abortion rights might reasonably conclude that avoiding the issue is the smartest political play. The difficulties endured this year by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) illustrate how seeking a middle ground on stem cells can backfire.

“He wanted to take a more neutral position on this, a more saleable position,” but many in his home state viewed his moves as politically motivated, said St. Louis University professor Kenneth Warren. “Jim is a very religious person. … He’s also a person who likes his Senate seat,” Warren said.

Talent has been accused of flip-flopping since he began to stake out his position earlier this year. Although his stance is remarkably similar to Santorum’s, the stem-cells issue has damaged his campaign.

His maneuvering angered Missouri’s Republican business establishment and some anti-abortion activists when he took months to arrive at his position on a pending amendment to the state Constitution that would promote any stem-cell research permitted under federal guidelines.

Popular former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) and Gov. Matt Blunt (R) back the Missouri amendment, as do the state’s Democratic politicians, including Talent’s opponent, state Auditor Claire McCaskill.

Talent eventually took a stand against the amendment, but not before announcing his support for alternative stem-cell research.

Talent also withdrew his co-sponsorship of a bill by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to ban human cloning. Talent said the bill might prevent scientists from exploring new kinds of stem-cell research.
Santorum appears to have avoided such a backlash in Pennsylvania — at least so far.

In part, he benefits from Casey’s having a similar position. In addition, unlike in Missouri, stem cells have not become a local issue. “I’m actually sort of shocked that the stem-cell issue is not a bigger issue in this state” despite its high showing in polls, Madonna said.

The majority-Republican Pennsylvania congressional delegation is split on stem cells. Nine House Republicans voted against last year’s bill, while three voted for it. Likewise, six Democrats supported the measure but one voted against it. Meanwhile, Specter is the House-passed bill’s biggest champion in the Senate.

Perhaps more important, Santorum engaged his allies in the anti-abortion camp before he and Specter introduced their legislation.

“We vetted this bill thoroughly,” Santorum said recently during a brief interview.

He enjoys the trust of anti-abortion activists. “Senator Santorum has been one of the top pro-life leaders in the Congress for many years,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life.  Pointedly, Santorum continues to support Brownback’s anti-cloning bill.

Not all abortion-rights opponents are sanguine about the ethics of this new research.

“We’re neutral” on the Santorum bill, said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics-policy analyst with Focus on the Family. “These types of alternatives may be interesting,” she said, but “you have the potential for some serious ethical issues.”