The battle of embryos returns to Capitol Hill

Stem cell research has awakened a bitter debate in Washington but voters care more about other electoral issues.

Nothing thrills official Washington more than a fresh conflict. This summer it is the human embryo, of all things, that seems to be providing the stuff of that conflict.

Researchers have discovered that frozen embryos in their laboratories are a valuable source of stem cells, whose unusual regenerative power holds the promise of halting incurable diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.

But it is the politics, not the science, that enthralls Washington. For the embryo news seems to portend yet another round in that old reliable of all political controversies: abortion.

Commentators are focusing on the fact that some Republicans object to the use of embryos on the grounds that the practice shows disregard for human life while others in the party feel that the potential value of embryo research outshines other concerns. A wedge issue that splits Republicans: what could be more fun?

Fun for Washington, perhaps, but not necessarily fun for the rest of the nation. For while the national politics of the abortion question are important to political players, they are markedly less so for the rest of the country. All the protests notwithstanding, the value in the embryo news is not that it provides occasion for a fresh battle. It is that it contains the seed - if readers will forgive the pun - for resolving the political side of the three-decade-old abortion debate.

Consider abortion's history. In the 1960s, many Americans, especially women, became frustrated with state bans on the practice. They brought the matter before the US Supreme Court, which in the 1973 case Roe v Wade ruled that the right to privacy embedded in the US constitution extended to include freedom to seek abortion in the early months of pregnancy.

Emotions surrounding this legal shift were so intense that they convinced both parties that abortion required further action. The Democratic party threw itself into decades of campaigning to widen formal abortion rights. Republicans likewise doggedly pursued the issue, at times seeking to reverse Roe v Wade or to implement various partial restrictions. Vociferous minorities in both parties - women's groups among the Democrats, the Christian right among Republicans - insisted that leadership should never flag in pushing the topic.

All these fireworks obscured a remarkable fact: the nation accepted the legal status quo.

The strength of this consensus shows up in long-term poll work by Gallup. In 1975, fresh on the heels of Roe v Wade, Gallup asked citizens whether abortion should be legal under any or some circumstances. About 75 per cent said they thought it should. The pollster asked the same question every year thereafter. The figure moved up a bit, so that it hung around eight in 10, and stayed there. In 2001, 26 years after the original poll, Gallup asked the question yet again. This time 77 per cent responded that yes, they favoured legality under some or any circumstances.

In other words, opinions on the politics and law of abortion had budged a mere two percentage points in a quarter-century.

This is not to say that abortion is not an important personal, family, school or church issue, that many Americans do not care deeply about abortion or that their attitudes have not shifted over time. More citizens favour some restriction on abortion than have at other points. Fewer seek an outright ban than did formerly.

But these attitudes do not translate into a desire for changes on a national scale or radical political action. Gallup also asked citizens, albeit over a shorter period, whether it mattered to them if their candidate shared their view on abortion. In May 2000, the same month that papers from the National Journal (neutral) to the Boston Globe (generally pro-choice) to the National Catholic Register (anti-abortion) confidently labelled abortion a political "hot button" issue, Gallup's research found that only 15 per cent of voters felt that their candidate must share their abortion views.

In the face of all this consistency, Washington's penchant for the abortion wars seems downright peculiar and politically destructive. Over the years voters have repeatedly demonstrated that they care more about other things. Education, reform of America's public pension system, taxes and healthcare show up ahead of abortion in surveys asking voters to rank issues by importance. Yet abortion has hogged the air time.

In an effort to generate a semblance of national division where there was none, lawmakers and activists have sought out ever more extreme cases to debate. Democrats have pushed not only for abortion rights but also for government funding for abortion, an idea that is anathema to many Republicans who do not want a "pro-abortion state". Republicans launched a years-long battle over partial birth abortion, a one-in-a-thousand-case second and third-trimester procedure that involves suctioning out the brain of the foetus. This method is so gruesome that the battle engaged even those who did not want to be engaged.

Which brings us to the embryo opportunity. Polls suggest that seven out of 10 favour stem cell research. It is easy to see why. Studying embryos does not involve interfering with viable foetuses but with collections of cells. It is unlikely that most Americans will feel moved to fight this. And by remaining unexcited, they will demonstrate that it may be time to move on.

President George W. Bush for his part has hesitated to plunge into the melee. Resisting pressure, he has said merely that he will pronounce "in a while". This is wise. In stem cell research, the nation may at last have found a wedge issue with the power to wedge an overheated debate right off the national stage.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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