Six-term Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette owns a dubious distinction: She is one of the two co-authors of the bill that garnered President George W. Bush's first-ever veto.
The subject of the legislation: embryonic stem cells. DeGette, who represents Colorado's 1st District—which includes Denver and its environs—is for them. The president isn't.
On July 19, 2006, President Bush ceremoniously vetoed the bill, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, even though it had passed both the House and Senate by wide margins—though the gaps were not large enough to override a veto. When he signed the veto, the chief executive was surrounded by so-called "snowflake babies," kids born from discarded IVF (in vitro fertilization) embryos that other couples had "adopted" through a Christian agency. These children wouldn't exist, he said, if embryos were used for stem cell research.
These publicity stunts, according to DeGette, have helped kill a wide range of legislation on sex and reproduction: the plan B "morning after" birth control pill, the human papillomavirus vaccine (touted as the best method for preventing cervical cancer), and even sex education—many Republicans advocate abstinence-only instruction.
ScientificAmerican.com caught up with DeGette recently to discuss her new book, Sex, Science and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason, out today. An edited transcript follows.
Why wait so long into the Bush administration to take a stand against its policies—and those of the right wing?
It's really been about 14 years of this right wing escapade—ever since the Republicans took control of Congress—but it has spiraled out of control under the Bush administration. A lot of the policies were started under the Republican leadership of the House, like some of the abstinence-only sex education. But then, under the Bush administration, these policies have gone to a whole new level because they have been the focus of a lot of the Bush administration's efforts toward sex and reproduction.
One of the reasons the book is coming out right now is targeted at the fall 2008 elections to try to say to voters, "When you're looking at who to vote for this year, be it president or members of Congress, you really need to think about science when drafting public policy."
But you're asking people to use this issue as a litmus test; both McCain and Obama voted for your stem cell bill.
It's true John McCain voted for stem cell research, which I am pleased about. But, I am concerned about how he would vote for some of the other cell-based research, like somatic cell nuclear transfer.
On votes relating to sex and reproduction, he has an abysmal voting record. I talk about McCain's votes on all these other issues—federal employee's health care coverage, including birth control; abstinence-only; medically accurate pregnancy prevention programs; the Mexico City global gag rule. So, Sen. McCain might be good on science relating to noncontroversial topics, but he's terrible on science as it relates to sex and reproduction. Some of the edgier and more difficult topics when you're dealing with the religious right.
Why did you choose to focus on what you call the "edgier-side" of the big antiscience conspiracy?
Some books have been written about the politicization of science in general by the Bush administration. Those books have been written by academics and reporters—people outside the process. I really wanted to write a book to let the general public know what really goes on inside of Congress, from an insider's perspective. I have a good perch to do that from because I've done the stem cell research and I'm the co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus.
When I started to write the book, I realized that all of the personal examples that I had and a lot of the issues that I had personally been fighting on all relate back to sex and reproduction. They're not all one thing: They're not abortion. It's stem cell research. It's international HIV/AIDS policy. It's birth control. There's a whole variety of subjects that I've been right in the middle of the debate on. That's why I decided to focus the book in that way.
There certainly have been other issues that the Bush administration has politicized. Global climate change is one of them, but if you want to look at an area that has been thoroughly politicized from top to bottom, it's the area of sex and reproduction.
Was your daughter Francesca's diagnosis with type 1 diabetes in 1998 the main factor in your taking up the cause of stem cell research?
She was diagnosed in the late 1990s, and around the same time researchers were really beginning to see the promise to embryonic stem cell research. There was a lot of discussion around that same time. One of the first diseases that embryonic stem cell research showed promise for was type 1 diabetes, so obviously I was interested in that.
Right around that same time Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse from Oregon, who has a daughter with type 1 diabetes, and George Nethercutt, who was a Congressman from Washington State—also with a daughter with diabetes—had founded the Congressional Diabetes Caucus. Elizabeth announced her retirement from Congress, and she wanted to find a replacement to head the caucus. She knew my daughter was newly diagnosed, so she asked me to step in.
So, I immediately jumped into [the stem cell] issue because it was a really unsettled issue. The Clinton administration had difficulty deciding how to regulate that research. While the Clinton administration was figuring that out, right around that time we had the 2000 elections. President Bush had made noises like he might ban this research during the campaign. A lot of the disease advocacy groups and others were extremely concerned that the president would ban this research. That's sort of when I got active, spearheading this whole issue: writing letters to the White House and organizing members of Congress, educating my colleagues about what this research was.
It seems funny now because now everybody knows what embryonic stem cell research is. Back then, a lot people thought it was around abortion and other issues. So, there was a big learning curve, too.
You make the case that the Bush administration has essentially gone against the will of the people with regard to stem cells.
I think President Bush was frankly unconcerned about what the public will was. He had a personal religious view and he felt strongly about that. So, he just stubbornly blazed ahead.
Something else that I talk about in the book—and I'm still shaking my head [about this]—is President Bush absolutely refused to meet with me and [Delaware Rep.] Mike Castle, my Republican sponsor, for the entire duration of the debate. I find that to be unbelievably inconsiderate, but also incurious on the president's part. Sometimes members of Congress will do a showy "Meet with me. Oh, he won't meet with me!" kind of a thing for window dressing. In this case, we really wanted the president to meet with us. We wanted to be able to look him in the eye and explain what our bill did. To this day, I am not sure he exactly understands what the bill did. But, he didn't care.
Do you find a lot of the latest work to be essentially work-arounds for getting embryonic stem cells‚—like the reprogramming of adult skin cells?
I'm pro-science, so I welcome all of these different types of stem cell research. I think we have moved, not away from embryonic stem cell research, but we have moved to a richer research environment, which was probably likely to happen anyway. The mistake that the press and politicians have made is characterizing this as either/or.
When they reprogrammed the adult stem cells, after giving credit to George Bush for the scientific discovery, there was a researcher comparing this advance to the Wright Brothers' discovery of the airplane. So, there's been a lot of hyperbole around this, and the one who is the most compelling talking about this is [National Institutes of Health director Elias] Zerhouni, who says all of these types of research support each other and we need to not be making political decisions picking one over the other.
I agree with that. But, we also need to have some kind of ethical review. It shocks people when I tell them we don't have any ethical review over what's going on in stem cell research on a national basis. I'm actually getting ready to introduce new legislation with Mike Castle, which will not just reverse the president's executive order but will also give support at the NIH for ethical cell-based research, and it will create federal, ethical oversight. So, that, to me, is going to be the exciting advance that I hope we'll make after the next election.
With so little actually proven in the field of stem cells, do you feel that you are arguing based on hype and potential rather than results?
I think one of the dangers that politicians make—and other commentators—is hyping the potential of one type of research, saying, "Well, my child would be cured if we only had more stem cell research." That's not how science works.
When I talk to the researchers, they say that over the middle term—rather than the short term or the long term—the great potential in curing a lot of these diseases, like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, nerve regeneration, is the ability to reprogram cells [so] that they can grow into new cells that will cure those diseases. Whether those come from adult stem cells, reprogrammed adult stem cells, whatever, they say that is the real frontier in bioscience.
Are right wing legislators acting as agents for the religious right or are they acting of their own will?
I think some of the leaders behind these antiscience arguments really do believe these things. I think the vast majority are really making a political calculation, and I think the political calculation they're making is: "I don't want to anger the religious right, so I'll just go along with this because I think my constituents think this anyway."
I say on page 21 of the introduction: "What in god's name are these people doing? Why does the religious right try to limit scientific advances when they relate to human reproduction? I've come to believe that the most extreme (and, frequently, the most influential) right wing advocates seek a country that comports with their view of the Bible. If it was up to them, they would not only outlaw abortion altogether, but all forms of birth control except the rhythm method and abstinence."
I can't think of any other explanation why they would so thoroughly politicize every aspect of sex and reproduction. I think they want to have a society where it's really God's will whatever happens. That's all well and good within their own families; they can structure their family that way. But, when you're talking about public policy, it's a very big waste of money and it's very dangerous to public health. Teen pregnancy went up last year for the first time in many, many years.
At what point is the onus for all this on Americans? These politicians who are making these decisions are ultimately accountable to them, after all.
This gets to the reason I wrote this book. I think that if the majority of Americans stood up and said, "I am going to elect politicians who care about science in public policy and who vote that way," we would have much better public policy relating to science. Frankly, I don't think this is a partisan issue. Some of my best allies in this quest have been moderate Republicans and sometimes not even moderate Republicans who care about these issues.
Is science a subject that politicians are weary of—given that its findings aren't necessarily things people want to hear, like give up your cars because of climate change?
I think there are a lot of politicians that are afraid of it. One of the reasons I wrote this book is that some of the examples are so absurd. If you say in a vacuum, "Science should play a role," people get freaked out because a lot of people didn't do so well in high school science or whatever. But, if you say to them, "Congress passed a bill that allowed states to give health insurance coverage to fetuses but not the pregnant mother," people would say, "Well, that's insane."
I think the devil is in the details. If you say to the American public, "The Bush administration appointed not just one, but two people to direct the Office of Family Planning who are opposed to birth control, they would be horrified. So, I think what you have to do is give them examples of how this religious viewpoint has run amok. And it's not just about science. It's about these wacky policies that a majority of politicians are not willing to stand up against.
But, how do you get those ideas out to the people?
Well, this is my little effort.
Are you at all worried about how little the American public is reading these days?
I think that scientists and people who care about sound science need to be willing to go on TV shows and radio shows and write op-eds and talk in layperson's terms about how this politicization is hurting the public policies that affect their lives. I think what happens oftentimes is scientists sit in the ivory tower and wring their hands and then politicians don't pay attention. And I think this has happened to an extent. On my stem cell bill, I have seen scientists willing to come out so much more and talk about these policies. So, I think it has happened, but I think people need to be willing to enter the public discourse and to not think that it's somehow dirty—to be willing to go on FOX News and find a succinct way to talk about how the politicization of science is hurting us in our lives.
Are you worried at all about how airing this dirty laundry may affect your future attempts to spearhead bipartisan legislation?
The Republicans that I work with are all pro-science—guys like Mike Castle. A careful reading of my book shows that many of the great heroes are Republicans.
If I'm just silent in letting these things go wrong, then I'm complicit.... And everyone around here knows me. Several of my Republican colleagues, who are conservatives, said, "So, I heard you wrote a book." And I said, "Well, yes I did, and the good news for you is: you're not in it."