Predictably, the reaction to Frist's decision by social conservatives was negative, bordering on vitriolic. His action was promptly repudiated by fellow Republican and Texas congressman Tom DeLay, majority leader of the House. He was virtually read out of the list of acceptable 2008 presidential candidates by the GOP's right wing. A group of ultraconservative clergymen held a vigil in front of Frist's Washington office to protest his "flip-flop." And another group, "Concerned Women for America," agonized in an all-points e-mail: "It is a mystery to us how the senator could claim that he believes life begins at conception and then immediately contradict that statement by adding, 'I also believe embryonic stem-cell research should be encouraged and supported.'"
Allow us to clear up the mystery: The embryos that would be used in potentially life-saving research would not be created by the government funding which Senator Frist now endorses. They already exist - as the leftovers from fertility cultures designed so that childless couples might give birth. The very purpose of these embryos - "spares" as it were - is to provide life. That purpose would be irrevocably thwarted if they should end up in a medical discard pile - which is where such embryonic cells are destined unless made available for some other specific life-giving purpose. Like federally funded stem-cell research.
Get it? Frist, an eminent physician before he entered politics, does. As he pointed out, adult stem cells lack the infinite capacity of embryonic cells to assume the form of other body-cell types. This is the feature of embryonic stem cells that gives them such potential in medical research. And this is the fact that makes the proponents of embryonic stem-cell research, now importantly including Frist, the true "pro-lifers" in the ongoing debate.
But just as Frist has been maligned from the right, so too has he been given short shrift from the political left. Those critics continue, with some justice, to ridicule what they consider the majority leader's "sell-out" in the Terri Schiavo case (when Frist, a renowned transplant surgeon who surely knew better, pretended to "diagnose" that permanently brain-damaged victim via her parents' amateur videotapes). Frist's own medical colleagues were not much kinder. And there is little disputing that the would-be presidential candidate's actions at the time were blatant attempts to ingratiate himself with the socially conservative constituency that will have great importance in the 2008 Republican primaries.
But that was then; this is now. Whatever favor Frist was trying to curry back then has, in the judgment of almost all unbiased political observers, been irrevocably cast aside. He may have forfeited his presidential hopes altogether. And if it proves that he hasn't, then that will be as good an argument for standing on principle as we can imagine. If he should actually end up getting votes from his change of direction, then good for him. We are way past being shocked that a political figure should act according to political calculations. n