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A Leading Senator Urges Support for Stem Cell Research

An Interview with Orrin Hatch

By JANE AMMESON

"I spent countless hours of study, reflection and prayer, doing everything I could to make sure I understood as completely as possible all the issues at stake. Eventually, I determined that being pro-life means helping the living."
A five-term U.S. senator, Orrin Hatch has represented the state of Utah since 1976. Though he was born in Pennsylvania, Hatch's roots stretched west to the state he represents. His great-grandfather, Jeremiah Hatch, was the founder of what is now Vernal, Utah, located in the eastern section of the state in the Uintah basin. Orrin Hatch attended Brigham Young University, where he graduated with a degree in history, before attending the University of Pittsburgh Law School. While studying law, he worked such jobs as janitor, metal lather and all-night desk attendant in a dormitory to support his growing family (Hatch and his wife, Elaine, have six children and 20 grandchildren). Hatch is well-known for his virtuosity on the piano, organ and violin, and has written scores of hymns and patriotic songs. He has recorded nine albums.

Hatch practiced as an attorney in both Pennsylvania and then Utah before being elected to the U.S. Senate. Besides his undergraduate and law degrees, he also holds five honorary doctorate degrees from law schools and universities.

Sen. Hatch champions what many consider conservative issues -- he voted against an amendment that would provide a ten-year extension on the assault weapons ban, as well as against an amendment that would require a criminal background check on all firearms transactions at gun shows. On the recently debated proposal for a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he said, "We must amend the Constitution to defend traditional marriage from being undermined by activist judges. The bedrock of American society is the family, and it is traditional marriage that undergirds the American family. But recent court decisions have proven that courts are usurping the role of legislatures by imposing their own definitions of marriage on the people. I whole-heartedly support the passage of the Allard Amendment to allow the American people -- rather than a few activist judges -- to define this fundamental unit of our society."

Hatch is anti-abortion and voted in favor of a ban on partial birth abortion. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the senator has not only advocated tougher anti-crime laws and legislation to protect individual property rights, stances that both sides of the political spectrum agree upon, he has also taken an active role in pushing forward President Bush?s judicial nominations of conservatives to higher courts. He is known to be in agreement with the current administration on most issues.

And that's why it took many by surprise when the senator came out as an advocate of embryonic stem cell research. Hatch was among 58 senators -- 11 of whom were Republicans -- who earlier this year signed a letter addressed to President Bush, asking him to relax restrictions on the federal financing for embryonic stem cell research -- research that Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, supported long before her husband died from Alzheimer's disease. Hatch has also been quoted as saying, "Perhaps one of the smaller blessings of (Reagan's death) will be a greater opportunity for Nancy to work on this issue."

"I personally believe that in the end the president and those who are in the administration will see that," Hatch said on CNN's Late Edition. "And we need to support this. Nancy Reagan happens to be right on this."

In a television debate on PBS, Hatch was even more adamant about the need for stem cell research.

"I think the president should allow this research to go forward," he told Margaret Warner in a debate that put him at odds with U.S. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a politician who wants to limit the use of stem cell research.

"The National Institutes of Health have concluded that?.embryonic stem cell research -- pluri potent stem cell research, if you will, has much greater promise than the adult stem cell research. However I have to say, I want to continue the research on adult stem cells as well -- if they could solve the problems, that would be great. If they cannot, then we certainly ought to continue to use these pluri potent cells that would be discarded or destroyed anyway for the benefit of mankind to solve these wide problems of health -- heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, ALS, juvenile diabetes.

"Why wouldn't we use these cells that will be discarded or destroyed anyway, why wouldn't we use these for benefit of mankind to facilitate life and to extend life?" Hatch continued. "And frankly, I'm not against using them for adoption either. That would be wonderful if we would. As a practical matter that just isn't happening. They're being discarded, they're being destroyed and we should use them for the betterment of mankind. I hope that the administration will choose that path.

"Those have much greater promise than the adult stem cells. Now if we ban federal funding of research in this area, that means that all of these research institutions throughout this country that receive federal funding would be barred from participating and trying to help to create treatments and/or cures for these tremendously dread diseases that are afflicting at least 100 million people in our society.

"Now to me, I think the most pro-life position you can take is to use these cells -- that would be discarded or destroyed anyway -- to extend or to facilitate life of those who are living here on the earth, and to keep in mind the NIH has set very restrictive, very stringent standards and rules and regulations for the use of these cells. And I think that is very highly appropriate. But if we don't do that, then I can see some of the greatest research institutions in the world that would be barred from participating in this type of research that could benefit all of mankind.

"Unfortunately, it is an election year and some will be determined to play politics with this critical health issue."

"I didn't approach this thing lightly. I am very pro-life, have always been on the side of the pro-life cause and have led many of the fights and written much of the legislation. But to make a long story short, I've prayed about it. I've studied the ethics of this. I've studied the legal opinion of the Clinton administration and I found it to be permissible. And I've also studied the science. I have to say, yes, it's a matter of great concern to do this right. But as a person who is really a compassionate conservative, I cannot see why we would not use stem cells that are going to be discarded or destroyed anyway for the benefit of mankind when the National Institutes of Health and other scientists said that pluri potent stem cells actually provide the greatest possible success ratio in solving these tremendous problems of mankind.

"We're talking about saving human life here and extending life and facilitating life. Yes, it's a tough decision. But all of the scientists that I've been able to talk to -- except our good friend from the University of Indiana -- have said that basically pluri potent stem cell research has the highest potential to resolve these difficulties and these problems. Some have said that you might compromise by having, say, 12 stem cell lines. That's not going to be enough.

"You're going to have to have more lines than that. I think in the end let's facilitate and extend life. Let's help all these people who are suffering from these maladies since they'll be destroyed anyway."

Chicago Life posed a few questions to the senator, asking him how he had come to support the controversial measure.

What brought about your commitment to stem cell research?

"A few years ago, I was deeply touched by a letter from the parents of Cody Anderson of West Jordan, a five-year-old boy who bravely struggles each day with juvenile diabetes. They told me of the incredible potential of embryonic stem cell research -- which has the promise to help the 100 million Americans who are struggling with the day-to-day challenges of currently incurable diseases."

How do we balance the beliefs of both sides on this issue? Is that possible?

"I spent countless hours of study, reflection and prayer, doing everything I could to make sure I understood as completely as possible all the issues at stake. Eventually, I determined that being pro-life means helping the living. While I respect those with other views, I do believe it is possible to be anti-abortion and for embryonic stem cell research. It is my belief that human life requires and begins in a mother's womb. Many of the stem cells used in this research will come from in vitro fertilization clinics, where literally thousands of fertilized embryos are destroyed every year simply because they will not be used by donors. I believe the true pro-life position would be to use these embryos -- which will be discarded anyway -- to benefit mankind."

How has president's limits on stem cell lines affected research?

"As you know, the president's August, 2001 policy allowed development of stem cell lines from embryos not needed for in vitro fertilization. Since that time, many scientists -- even those who were enthusiastic about the president's announcement -- have found that the cell lines are not suitable for the research. That's why 58 of us sent a letter to the president recently asking him to modify his policy. The list includes some good conservatives, and there are even more senators who would be willing to vote to allow more stem cell research to go forward. Unfortunately, it is an election year and some will be determined to play politics with this critical health issue. I remain hopeful the president will see that action needs to be taken and that my Democrat[ic] colleagues will refrain from using the stem cell research issue for political gain at the expense of the cause." o

Published: August 01, 2004
Issue: Fall 2004