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Stem Cell Politics | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Stem Cell Politics

The last day that I spent with Paul Wellstone began on a sunny morning in the living room of his St. Paul home. I'd arrived to join him as he campaigned for reelection in what was widely seen as the most hotly contested Senate race in the nation.

But when I walked in, Wellstone was not making calls for campaign contributions or rehearsing soundbites.

He was reading.

Wellstone was a passionate reader. He always had a new book under his arm. And he read widely -- far beyond the confines of the history, biography and public-policy shelves that political figures tend to frequent.

On that last day, he was reading Michael J. Fox's 2002 book, Lucky Man: A Memoir.

Wellstone couldn't stop talking about the actor's autobiography, especially the sections where Fox wrote about his struggle with Parkinson's disease. The senator from Minnesota, whose parents had suffered from that ailment and who had himself been recently diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, related to what he was reading. He went on at some length about how important it was for prominent people to be open about their chronic conditions. He felt it helped promote understanding and empathy, which in Wellstone's view was often the first step toward political engagement. And, as the senate's most passionate advocate for medical research and a national health care system, he felt that engaging the great mass of Americans in a discussion about the importance of federal and state funding of groundbreaking -- and sometimes controversial -- studies was essential.

Wellstone believed, as many scientists do, that with proper support, embryonic stem cell research could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne' Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.

After President Bush's 2001 decision to sharply limit federal funding of medical research that uses embryonic stem cell lines, Wellstone said, "The sharp limitation of federal support may well close the door on some of the life-saving promise of embryonic stem cell research, which can be conducted consistent with basic ethical and legal principles that respect the value of human life. I do not believe that President Bush's decision will be the final word on this important federal policy. In light of this disappointing announcement, Congress, and the American people, will now surely be heard."

As he was on so many issues, Paul Wellstone turned out to be prescient.

On this, the fourth anniversary of his death in a Minnesota plane crash, stem-cell research is finally emerging as the sort of political issue that Wellstone thought it should be. And Michael J. Fox, whose book the senator was reading on that sunny morning that now seems so very long ago, is at the center of the debate. This week, Fox began appearing in televised campaign commercials for Democratic supporters of embryonic stem-cell research -- including Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, Maryland U.S. Senate candidate Ben Cardin, Illinois U.S. House candidate Tammy Duckworth and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle -- who are locked in tight races with Republicans who want to limit support for scientific inquiry.

Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators who once trashed Wellstone are now attacking Fox. Limbaugh has gone so far as to claim that the actor "is exaggerating the effects of the disease," while claiming that the commercials are "purely an act." Why the attacks? It comes back to that point Wellstone made: When a prominent figure who suffers from a life-threatening condition joins the debate over funding scientific research, it can shift the political pendulum. If Michael J. Fox succeeds in framing the stem-cell research fight as the life-and-death issue that it is, then, perhaps, "the American people will now surely be heard." And Paul Wellstone will again be proven right.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

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