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US presidential candidates lock horns over stem cell policy

29 September 2008
Appeared in BioNews 477

Both candidates in the race for the US presidency - Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama - have released misleading stem cell policy radio advertisements. Although both campaign ads were technically true, Obama misrepresented McCain's current views in support of the research and McCain misrepresented the opposition of his vice president nominee (Sarah Palin) on embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research.

On 9 August 2001, President Bush banned federal funding for human ES cell research on stem cell lines created after that date. Since then, Obama and McCain have both voted in favour of legislation introduced in the Senate to relax the ban. Two bills have since passed Congress but the latest was defeated by Bush's veto.

Obama openly advocates ES cell research using leftover IVF embryos as 'a legitimate moral approach', contending that 'if we are going to discard these embryos and we know that there is research that could lead to curing debilitating diseases, then I think we should in a careful way go ahead and pursue that research, so long as we are not designing embryos for that purpose'. However, McCain's position is less straightforward. Obama's one minute advertisement entitled 'Understands' claims that McCain 'has stood in the way' and 'has opposed' ES cell research. Later, a mother of a three-year old daughter with Type 1 juvenile diabetes explains how Obama understands what McCain 'just doesn't' about the significance of stem cell research to seek cures for diseases like diabetes.

McCain did oppose ES cell research seven years ago during his first presidential campaign in 2000. In February 2000 he was one of 20 Republican senators who wrote to the National Institutes of Health discouraging liberal regulation. However, in July 2001, McCain publicly announced on a major national political television show 'Meet the Press' that he had changed his views in support of the research 'under stringent safeguards'.

Recently, there has been concern that McCain's support may flip-flop again once president. McCain requires support from the powerful Christian right movement within the Republican party to win the presidency. It opposes all embryo research and has heavily criticised McCain for his 'maverick' views. This month the Republican National Convention advocated a ban on human embryo research. McCain's campaign spokeswoman told the press that he still supports the research but refrained from saying what he would do if elected. In June 2008, McCain met privately with Christian conservatives and said that he was open to their views in opposition of the research despite past differences. McCain's support is reluctant. He remains 'wildly optimistic that skin cell research will increasingly make embryonic stem cell research academic'. This has supporters concerned.

McCain's advertisement deceptively skirted the issue by couching his support in broad terms. He claimed that Palin is onboard with her support of 'stem cell research'. While supporting uncontroversial adult stem cell research, the advertisement belied the fact that Palin is a vocal opponent of ES cell research. In her 2006 gubernatorial election, Palin stated that 'stem cell research would ultimately end in the destruction of life', adding: 'I could not support it'.

Obama released his advertisement in retaliation and although it misconstrued McCain's record, it clarified Palin's stance: '[McCain] picked a running mate who is against it, and he's running on a platform that is even more extreme than George Bush's on this vital research. John McCain doesn't understand that medical research benefiting millions shouldn't be held hostage by the political views of a few'.

Both advertisements were released in the cities of independent 'swing-vote' states where the stance on singular issues like this may just help either candidate to gain important political ground. Obama's advertisement specifically targeted the female and suburban independent vote. Such advertisements are cheap with little airtime but nonetheless receive high exposure on sites like YouTube and partisan websites.

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