Of Stem Cells and Heartstrings

On the
On the "pro-" side, from left, Sens. Gordon Smith, Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 12, 2007

For those who have always thought politicians are a sick bunch, this week's Senate debate on stem cell research provided ample confirmation.

"I sustained an episode with Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer two years ago," disclosed Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"As a child I suffered from polio," confided Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"My wife is a breast cancer survivor, my brother died of a stroke, my sister died of an aortic aneurysm," offered Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

"I just lost my uncle in Huntington, West Virginia, last year to a form of cancer," submitted Tom Carper (D-Del.), currently on crutches himself.

On and on they went. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) invoked her grandmother (Parkinson's), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) cited unidentified kin and his best friend (diabetes), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) mentioned his grandson (asthma), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) recalled her father (multiple sclerosis), and Alzheimer's was linked to both New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez's mother and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker's father.

Then came Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) with a medical trump card. "I watched my grandmother die of Parkinson's," he said. "I watched my uncle, Addison Udall, die of Parkinson's. I watched my cousin, former Democratic presidential candidate and Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall, die of Parkinson's."

With yesterday's debate on the Senate floor, the Oprahfication of American politics is nearly complete. While it is difficult to imagine Daniel Webster rising to discuss his cirrhosis of the liver, or Henry Clay requesting floor time to expound on a relative's gout, the 110th Congress has turned the highly personal into the intensely political. Those senators who didn't talk about ailing or deceased family members yesterday or the day before invariably discussed ailing or deceased friends and constituents.

Possibly, the senators had simply run out of things to say about embryonic stem cell research. They had, after all, indulged in similar debates several times over the past six years. Or possibly they had resorted to the personal suffering out of frustration. The last Congress voted to expand funding of embryonic stem cell research, but President Bush vetoed it. He promises to do the same this time.

Specter, one of the legislation's sponsors, kicked off the personal appeal for stem cell research on Tuesday. Noting his own Hodgkin's disease, he also recalled the loss of his chief of staff to breast cancer, and a close friend and federal judge to prostate cancer.

Carper, another proponent, followed with the chamber's most extensive family medical history. "My mother passed away about a year and a half ago, almost two years ago now," he began, "and she had in the last decade or so of her life been stricken by Alzheimer's disease, by dementia. Her mother had lived and died with the same disease. Her grandmother had lived and died with the same disease. Her sister may be showing symptoms of the same disease."

From there, Carper proceeded to discuss his maternal grandfather, a butcher who suffered from tremors. "I remember watching as Parkinson's took its toll on him as it has in others of our colleagues in the House of Representatives." Finally, Carper concluded with his uncle, lost to pancreatic cancer.

Opponents of the bill countered with their own tales of medical woe and argued that adult stem cells would be sufficient to find cures. "I have a brother-in-law who suffers from Parkinson's," said Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). Grassley, after discussing his wife, brother and sister, continued: "I have friends who have diabetes, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease. I have known many who have lost a battle to cancer and others who face a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease."

Those too private to discuss their kin mentioned their constituents. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), sponsor of the embryonic bill, repeatedly displayed a poster of a 12-year-old diabetic posing with an array of syringes. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) displayed posters of another juvenile diabetic and a paralyzed veteran. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) hung posters of beneficiaries of adult stem cell treatments, including one Parkinson's sufferer who went on safari and "scrambled up a tree to avoid being run over by a rhino." Barack Obama (D-Ill.), too busy to make a poster or give a speech, tried to get into the act by issuing a written statement about a 2-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Yet these stories, though recited by the dozen, didn't carry the emotional punch of the senators' own tales. Menendez choked up as he spoke of his mother with Alzheimer's: "When I look at her empty gaze and shriveled body, I cannot help but wonder, if we had started embryonic stem cell research years ago, would she still be suffering today?"

The testimonials continued. "When I was just 15 years old, my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis," Murray said late in the debate.

Soon after, Minority Leader McConnell entered the chamber to close the debate with recollections of his childhood polio. "From age 2 to age 4, I was not allowed to walk or run," he said.

By yesterday, he could not only walk and run but also vote -- against embryonic stem cell research.

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