Frist Frosts Religious Right Allies With Stem-Cell Flip-Flop

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has enjoyed a warm relationship with Religious Right groups like the Family Research Council in the past – but that came to screeching halt July 29 when Frist announced he is changing sides on the issue of stem-cell research.

Overnight, Frist went from favorite son to public enemy number one.

Frist, speaking on the floor of the Senate, insisted that his views were still “pro-life.”

“I am pro-life,” he told his fellow senators. “I believe life begins at conception. It is at this moment that the organism is complete – yes, immature – but complete. An embryo is nascent human life. I also believe that embryonic stem-cell research should be encouraged and supported.”

Reaction from the Religious Right was swift and furious.

“I’m brokenhearted,” Richard Land, of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times.

William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a far-right Catholic group, issued a press statement calling Frist “Dr. Duplicity” and asserting that he is “worse than [John] Kerry.”

But the unkindest cut had to have come from the Family Research Council, a Religious Right group that Frist addressed as recently as last spring. The Times noted that the FRC’s Web site ran an “unflattering” photo of Frist alongside criticism from FRC President Tony Perkins.

Asserted Perkins, “The statement from someone who seeks the support of the pro-life community (and who once had Presidential aspirations) is very disappointing but not a surprise.”

James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family was even harsher, asserting in a statement that Frist now favors “the destruction of human life.”

Continued Dobson, “The media have already begun speculating that Sen. Frist’s announcement today is designed to improve his chances of winning the White House in 2008 should he choose to run. If that is the case, he has gravely miscalculated. To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science will be rightly seen by America’s values voters as the worst kind of betrayal – choosing politics over principle.”

Dobson was so angry he took to the airwaves Aug. 4 to blast Frist. During the broadcast, Dobson called stem-cell experimentation “Nazi-esque” and added, “It will lead inevitably later to cloning and ultimately to the harvesting of body parts.”

Advocates of stem-cell research, led by an advocacy group called StemPAC, demanded Dobson apologize. Many supporters of the group are suffering from degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s Disease or have family members who are. They resented being compared to Nazis.

But Dobson would not back down. He addressed the controversy on the air the next day, telling his listeners, “I made a statement that is being spun like a top by the ultra liberals who don’t care about unborn life. Life is not high on their agenda. So why should it surprise us that they’re mad at me for supporting life?”

Frist clearly wanted his switch to make a big splash, as he arranged for front-page coverage in The Times. His motivation for changing sides remains unknown. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Frist plans to seek the GOP nomination for president in 2008. Some observers speculated that Frist is seeking to moderate his image in advance of that run, but others pointed out that it’s too early to do that. Frist will need Religious Right support to get through the primary season, and he is unlikely to get that now.