Massachusetts Governor Battles Harvard and Legislature on Stem Cell Research

Published May 1, 2005

On March 30, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill sponsored by Senate President Robert Travaglini (D-East Boston) that would allow embryonic stem cell research and so-called “therapeutic” cloning. The bill passed by a vote of 35-2. The following day, the House voted 117-37 in support of the measure.

Although there were sufficient votes in both houses to override his veto, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) told the Associated Press on April 1 he “would vote my conscience” and veto the bill anyway.

The governor’s spokesperson, Shawn Feddeman, released a statement saying, “The cloning of human embryos has never been done before in this country, and Governor Romney has very legitimate concerns that we not create life for the sole purpose of experimenting on it.”

Competing for Spin

On February 9, the day before Travaglini introduced his bill, Romney was quoted by the New York Times saying he would oppose any legislation that would allow for the creation of new human embryos for scientific experiments.

Romney told the Times, “Some of the practices that Harvard and probably other institutions in Massachusetts are engaged in cross the line of ethical conduct.”

Travaglini, point man in the State Senate for the advocates of cloning, quickly got the Boston media back on topic at his February 10 news conference.

“It’s about saving lives and helping children,” said Travaglini. That theme has been the typical starting point for conversations on stem cell research and cloning.

The activist mother of a young girl, whom Travaglini invited to speak at his news conference, pulled at the heartstrings. Her daughter, she said, is “a slave to illness”–chronic diabetes. We learned about her daughter’s painful life:

“She has had a medical appointment every two hours of her life for the past eight years. Her fingertips are shredded from 30,000 times that she has pricked her finger. She has been in the hospital critically ill 14 times. If you saw her, you would never know it. She smiles. She’s happy. She’s a straight-A student. That’s because she has hope. And I’ll tell you that a lot of that hope has to do with stem cell research.”

That is, embryonic stem cell research.

Ignoring the Better Alternative

The emotional framing of the debate is disingenuous for a few reasons, the first being the governor has presented a compromise position: Romney has decided to support experimentation on surplus frozen embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. Bay State proponents of embryonic stem cell research, however, have refused his offer.

As Romney put it on February 10, “All of the rhetoric has been, ‘We are throwing away embryos–surplus embryos–that could be used for stem cell research and that makes no sense.’ … And now, now that I’ve said, ‘OK, I support that,’ now [the other side says], ‘No, that’s insufficient. How could you possibly limit it to that?’ Well, that’s what they’ve been asking for.”

In other words, Romney called their bluff.

Travaglini said on the day of his press conference, “We should do everything we can to make sure it [embryonic stem cell research] happens here.”

That day, the Boston Globe reported University of California at San Diego researchers had discovered “cells in the heart that can create new muscle cells, raising hopes that doctors may find dramatic new ways to treat heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death.”

Despite numerous successful uses of non-embryonic stem cells in medicine, the big-money and best-publicized voices behind stem cell research remain those who are narrowly focused on embryos, not on the available and more promising alternatives.

Seeking Allies

Romney himself is in an unusual position for a politician facing this issue, and for that reason is perhaps one of the best spokesmen for his side of the debate. His wife, Ann–who he is not shy to say is one of his key advisors on these ethical issues–has multiple sclerosis. The hope of stem cell research is one that hits close to home for the governor and, tactically, takes some of the sting away from the usual “heartless Republican” accusation hurled by proponents of the all-or-nothing approach.

Romney, who has been spoken of as a potential 2008 presidential contender, could set not only his political fate with his position but a significant precedent in a country that currently has no restrictions on embryonic stem cell research or cloning. No prohibition on cloning is currently on the schedule in the U.S. Capitol, and with California and New Jersey having already green-lighted state-funded cloning, Massachusetts seems to have lost the battle for any kind of a ban on this research.

Romney has started out of the gates playing it straight: “I am in favor of stem cell research. I am not in favor of creating new human embryos through cloning,” he told the media. Whether that will be enough to enable him to enter the federal arena and support an eventual ban on cloning remains to be seen.

Many states are watching the debate in Massachusetts. If Romney is unable to hold the line on therapeutic cloning there, it is clear cloning will move forward in many more states.

Kathryn Jean Lopez ([email protected]) is editor of National Review Online, where an earlier version of this article originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.