Two weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz convened a subcommittee hearing on alleged abuses of power by the Internal Revenue Service. Conservatives and Republicans have been up in arms over claims that the IRS singled out nonprofit Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny when considering their applications for tax exempt status. At the hearing, Cruz tore into the IRS and the Obama administration, drew comparisons to Richard Nixon’s felonious behavior, and declared with solemn gravity that “no politician has the right to use the machinery of the executive branch to target political enemies.”
Just a couple of days ago, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz released an ad promising that he, as president, would use the machinery of the executive branch to target a political enemy.
“Ted Cruz will prosecute and defund Planned Parenthood,” the ad declares, for the unforgivable crime of donating tissues from aborted fetuses to be used for medical research. That practice isn’t actually illegal, but a series of undercover sting videos released by an antiabortion rights activist group have created the impression that Planned Parenthood is profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Overheated allegations aside, there is no indication that Planned Parenthood is actually doing that, but Ted Cruz is going to prosecute them anyway and end the practice of “harvest[ing] organs from unborn children.”
The ad and the promises it makes are noteworthy for several reasons. As Steve Benen points out, Cruz is sort of giving up the game when it comes to these Planned Parenthood videos. He presents the use of fetal tissues for medical research as crime that must be stopped, but his solution – prosecuting and defunding Planned Parenthood – won’t change the fact that the practice is explicitly permitted by law. He’s just railing against Planned Parenthood and trying to ride the wave of conservative outrage the sting videos generated.
There also seems to be a huge problem with the imagery Cruz’s ad people chose for this advertisement. Its opening shots appear to be black-and-white videos of young polio patients in wheelchairs and leg braces. “For a century, Americans have helped heal and care for millions in need,” the narrator says. Polio ceased being a scourge in this country after American scientists used human fetal tissues to develop the first polio vaccine in the 1950s. The researchers involved won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1954. The eradication of polio is one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, and one of the worst possible examples to include in an ad attacking fetal tissue donation for medical research. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad other vaccines – rubella, hepatitis A, rabies, chicken pox – that have been developed or produced using fetal cells.
Cruz’s campaign against fetal tissue research also would seem to conflict with one of his under-the-radar policy goals: pushing medical researchers to devise cures for deadly and debilitating diseases. In mid-July, Cruz held a Senate hearing with a panel of medical experts to discuss ways to better use government resources when it comes to researching cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and a bevy of other incurable diseases. “We pay billions or trillions on the back end, dealing with the consequences of horrific diseases rather than investing and creating the incentives on the front end to cure these diseases once and for all,” Cruz said at that hearing.
Removing fetal tissue research from scientists’ toolbox would deal a huge setback to the development of cures for those diseases. Stem cell-based treatments for Lou Gehrig’s disease show great promise, and fetal tissue research is being used to develop treatments for Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. No one is denying that there is a grim price attached to these advancements, and the moral complexities at play are difficult to negotiate – this Vox essay by a former biotech employee who worked with fetal tissues to develop breast cancer treatments is an excellent examination of the moral tug of war at the heart of this type of research.
Cruz isn’t having that discussion, though. He’s demagoguing the issue, posturing as a tough guy, and presenting the donation of fetal tissue as inarguably contrary to America’s “values.” In doing so he's ignoring the incredible advancements in medical science that fetal tissue research has made possible and may make possible in the future.