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Triple somersault

His recent flip-flop on stem-cell research is part of a practiced Bill Frist routine

The days following Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's speech supporting embryonic stem-cell research unfolded like a messy, public breakup. Pro-lifers crumpled into their chairs like scorned lovers to pound out angry notes to all their friends in the blogosphere. They called him a flip-flopper and pointed out all the times Mr. Frist had done them wrong. They reminded one another that he supported abortionist David Satcher's nomination as surgeon general.

A few weeks later, Mr. Frist sat down at his own keyboard and penned a column, published Aug. 10 in the online-only Chattanoogan.

"I respect your opinions. I respect that you are standing by your principles. In the whirlwind that is bound to engulf this issue in the days ahead, I just wanted you to know that I am standing by mine," Mr. Frist wrote after extolling the unproven potential of embryonic stem cells.

The column could signify the end of Mr. Frist's long, dysfunctional relationship with the pro-life movement. For years pro-lifers minimized or ignored the signs that called Mr. Frist's commitment into question. Now realizing they've been cheated, pro-lifers also realize that Mr. Frist has long courted both sides of the abortion issue.

Before running for the Senate in 1994, Mr. Frist worked as a transplant surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was a wealthy doctor with millions invested in the for-profit health-care company his family started, Hospital Corporation of America. He emphasized his medical experience, making health-care reform a central issue in his campaign.

Mr. Frist's connections with HCA, still a sore spot for some pro-lifers, drew the fire of one of his opponents in the 1994 Republican primary. Steve Wilson of Memphis campaigned almost exclusively on an anti-abortion platform. He accused Mr. Frist of profiting from abortion because HCA allowed physicians to perform them during the course of medical treatment.

"Typically, it would be a situation where a decision is made based on the health of the mother," HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott told WORLD. When asked if that was the only situation in which HCA doctors performed abortions, Mr. Prescott said: "I would like to be able to say that, but to be perfectly honest with you, I don't think anybody has ever done any of that research."

Throughout his career, HCA has been one of the top five contributors to Mr. Frist's campaigns, through its political action committee and people associated with the company. From 1991 to 1996, HCA was Mr. Frist's top contributor with $66,450 in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Frist's brother, Thomas Frist Jr., has served as CEO and chairman of the board for HCA.

In 2000, Mr. Frist put his stock in HCA into a blind trust, effectively giving up his control over it. According to his financial disclosure reports, the value of the stock was between $5 million and $25 million. Members of Mr. Frist's immediate family each had at least $1 million in HCA stock. At the time of the transfer, the federal government was investigating HCA for Medicare fraud, income tax violations, insider trading, and other crimes. HCA eventually paid about $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties.

Mr. Frist's spokesperson did not immediately respond to inquiries about the senator's HCA holdings. Spokesman Nick Smith has defended the stock to the media before, noting that Mr. Frist has never worked for HCA nor served on its board.

"The Senate Ethics Committee ruled that it was not necessary for Sen. Frist to put all his holdings into a blind trust," Mr. Smith told reporters in 2002. "However, Sen. Frist wanted to go the extra mile to ensure there was no conflict of interest."

In addition to criticizing Mr. Frist's HCA connections, Mr. Wilson told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Mr. Frist's views on abortion have been "unclear" and "multiple choice." Mr. Frist told Tennessee reporters that, ideologically, he opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother was in danger. But pragmatically, he did not think the federal government should restrict abortions.

"I don't think those sorts of decisions need to be decided at those highest levels of federal government," he said during a debate. So who should decide? "I believe that abortion is an option that a woman should have," the paper quoted him as saying.

Despite Mr. Frist's comments and connections to HCA, Mr. Wilson later campaigned for Mr. Frist after he won the primary. Mr. Frist also garnered the full support of Tennessee Right to Life, which he had never been a member of, nor contributed to, according to the organization's current president.

Cherrie Holden, president of the organization's political action committee at the time, met with Mr. Frist several times during the campaign and reviewed a questionnaire he filled out about abortion. "He was definitely pro-life," she said.

Mrs. Holden and others in the National Right to Life organization felt vindicated by Mr. Frist's actions in office. His National Right to Life online profile shows a clean record-39 green checkmarks next to votes on partial-birth abortion, assisted suicide, and violence against unborn children.

While Mr. Frist was establishing a pro-life voting record in Washington, Tennessee Right to Life president Brian Harris felt the organization had a disjointed relationship with the senator. That disconnect grew larger in 2001 when politicians turned their attention to embryonic stem-cell research.

Doctors have treated more than 50 diseases such as leukemia and sickle-cell anemia with stem-cell transplants. In the transplants, adult stem cells act as factories for creating new, healthy cells that overcome disease. Many scientists believe embryonic stem cells could similarly cure even more devastating diseases because, unlike specialized adult stem cells, they have the potential to produce almost all the tissue in a human body. But harvesting stem cells from embryos destroys the embryo.

Last month's flip-flop on the stem-cell issue was not Mr. Frist's first. In July 2001, Mr. Frist gave a speech in the Senate supporting federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. He advocated funding research on stem cells from unused embryos manufactured for in vitro fertilization. Later that summer, President Bush allowed funding, but limited it to research on already-harvested stem cells. No federal funding could go toward the further destruction of embryos.

At that point Mr. Frist backed away from his advocacy of funding for stem-cell research in favor of the president's policy. But it appears his position on embryo destruction changed again-or never really changed at all.

"We've always sort of waited for the other shoe to drop," Mr. Harris told WORLD. In July of this year, that shoe hit pro-lifers between the eyes when Mr. Frist resumed his support for federally funding embryo destruction.

In his most recent speech to the Senate, Mr. Frist insistently labeled himself pro-life. But his belief that parents should have the option to end the lives of frozen embryos brought back echoes of his 1994 comment that women should have the option of abortion.

"Obviously, any decision about the destiny of an embryo must clearly and ultimately rest with the parents," he said.

In his Chattanoogan column on stem-cell research, Mr. Frist compared frozen embryos to the donated hearts he transplanted into patients. Both were destined "with absolute certainty" to be destroyed, he said.

Pro-lifers plan to use what they have learned from this split with Mr. Frist in the next election. Mr. Harris says he will look beyond a candidate's self-applied label of "pro-life" or "pro-choice." To be pro-life, he says, you have to share the movement's core values, not just one of its positions. "If we had looked in 1994, we would not have seen in Bill Frist a person who shared our core convictions," he said. "The bar for being called a pro-life leader or a pro-life official has been significantly raised."

Lynde Langdon

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital's managing editor. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the Missouri School of Journalism, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Lynde resides with her family in Wichita, Kansas. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.